Editorial: Facebook shoots down gun sales


You can find pretty much anything on the Internet if you try hard enough. But it’s getting a little tougher to buy guns through social media.

Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook and Instagram would no longer allow private sellers to sell guns through their social platforms. This doesn’t prohibit established gun shops from creating pages or accounts to promote their stores, but rather inhibits individuals from promoting and selling their guns in this manner.

The change developed after Obama promised to tighten enforcement of unlicensed gun sales, and in response, individual sellers said they would turn to sites like Facebook to advertise their guns.

Facebook was never directly involved in the sales, but served as the forum for the exchanges, therefore unintentionally enabling illegal activity.

By not allowing individuals to sell guns using their platforms, Facebook makes it harder to participate in this illegal activity. But they’re also restricting the sort of freedom we’ve come to expect from the Internet.

It’s still possible for people to work around the system — by using code words, going through the gun store sellers to be the middlemen or simply by direct messaging as opposed to using public pages.

From one point of view, preventing illegal activity is what companies are legally responsible for doing, so they make sure people follow the laws. But, for a company like Facebook — whose main purpose is the freedom of expression and proliferation of ideas — it sets up questions about the intents behind the action.

Yes, the illegal acquisition of guns is a problem in the United States, and Facebook executives obviously thought prohibiting this would be the best way to prevent illegal activities. Facebook also bans offering marijuana, pharmaceuticals and certain other drugs for sale, much of which are illegal substances in most states. But now that they’re prohibiting something that’s legal to acquire.

Although it has taken measures to ensure that people don’t acquire guns illegally, it raises the question whether Facebook is taking a political stance on an issue or if it’s just doing it to avoid legal troubles. While companies often take political stances, should a social media site take a stance and prohibit certain behaviors if they are lawful?

While certain selling of guns is legal, purchase of one is not if you lack a license. Facebook’s ban is a way to prevent that from happening — since individual sellers might not care about or look for licensed buyers. A person looking to buy a gun through Facebook might not be the best person to own a gun, since they might be looking to evade the registration process or even a background check.

What if people just move on to a different website to sell guns out in the open web? Should those sites follow Facebook’s decision? Or will they turn a blind eye?

The problem stems from when a company’s decision can infringe on people’s expressions. For a company like Facebook, whose main mission is to allow that expression, banning individual sellers could infringe on people’s rights — especially if those people are licensed to sell guns, even if they don’t own a store to sell them through. Even if an individual did everything stores did, complete with checking registrations and taking regulatory precautions, they would still not be allowed to use Facebook as a way to find customers.

But for a social media platform with billions of monthly visitors, it’s easier to outright ban some practices rather than monitor each and every instance of potential unlawfulness.

So maybe banning it outright is the best way to protect some people, even if it means restricting the freedoms that the constitution affords U.S. citizens. But once you draw that line once, what else are you willing to ban?

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