Meta banned firearms sales. Why are they still available on Facebook and Instagram?

<span>Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Guns, weapon parts and ammunition are widely available for sale on Facebook and Instagram, new research shows, as experts say Meta is not doing enough to stop deadly weapons getting into the wrong hands.

Meta policy since 2016 has banned the “sale or use of weapons, ammunition or explosives” between individuals, including “firearms parts”. However, the study from Media Matters for America, a non-profit tech watchdog group, shows users of Instagram and Facebook can buy materials from unregulated sources to build high-powered, automatic weapons in just a few clicks.

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Many of these listings are for 3D-printed or DIY gun kits, also known as “ghost guns”, which allow users to build weapons at home without completing a background check. Such weapons are a growing problem in the US, with 20,000 suspected ghost guns recovered in criminal investigations in 2021 – a tenfold increase from 2016. Joe Biden in April announced a new effort to crack down on untraceable firearms, calling them “weapons of choice for many criminals”.

The study from Media Matters identified more than 40 active listings in the US on Facebook Marketplace and Instagram Shopping that are selling gun parts, accessories and ammunition – including parts to build unregistered weapons at home.

Gun parts for sale included buffer assemblies, shoulder stocks, charging handles and rail systems. The study also identified listings for nearly every part needed to build an AR-15, the semi-automatic weapon used in a number of mass shootings including the deadly attack on an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

While Media Matters’ study focused on public listings, other researchers have looked at sales taking place through private groups, where they say weapons sales are widespread.

A recent study conducted by the advocacy group Coalition for a Safer Web found that private Facebook groups with thousands of members are being used to sell and trade fully functional and often unregulated weapons – and that in some cases the platform’s algorithm has recommended such products and groups to users.

“This is just another example of Facebook’s lax terms of service allowing the marketing, promotion and sale of dangerous weapons including 3D-printed guns,” said Eric Feinberg, the author of the Coalition for a Safer Web study.

Listings for 3D-printed gun kits have been found for sale on Facebook and Instagram.
Listings for 3D-printed gun kits have been found for sale on Facebook and Instagram. Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

Feinberg’s study found dozens of listings inside private groups for weapons, including handguns, magazines and ammunition, and gun parts to automate existing weapons to make them more deadly.

Ashley Settle, a Meta spokeswoman, said that although the sale of firearms between individuals is banned on Facebook and Instagram, the posting or promotion of firearm content is allowed from “legitimate retailers”. The company distinguishes between these posts and enforces the policies through its commerce review system, which is largely automated.

She said that since the Media Matters report was not shared with the company, she “cannot address specifics” but “any sale of guns or gun parts is a clear violation of our commerce policies”.

“We take action if we detect – or are made aware of – anyone attempting to circumvent this policy, including by banning the seller from our platforms and applying penalties to their account,” she said.

The two reports were released days after the Washington Post revealed that although Facebook forbids the sale of weapons, it bans a user from the platform only if they have violated the policy 10 times – an enforcement policy more lenient than those pertaining to violations such as calling for violence or promoting terrorism, which trigger a ban after one violation.

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Meta’s failure to enforce its policies on gun sales directly leads to violence and extremist recruiting, said Shannon Watts, founder of gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action.

“Guns have become a recruiting tool and organizing principle for the far right to stoke fear and recruit new members,” she said. “Facebook doesn’t just offer an opening for this radicalization to occur – their ‘10-strike’ rule on gun sales is incredibly dangerous. It’s long past time for social media companies to stop pointing fingers elsewhere and actually take responsibility for the dangers occurring on their platforms.”

Facebook’s algorithms have been shown to contribute to radicalization in the past, with the company’s own internal research showing “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools”. The platform has become a one-stop shop for both radicalization and access to deadly weapons, said Ben Wyskida, a spokesperson for Meta watchdog group the Real Facebook Oversight Board.

“Facebook has its finger on the trigger,” he said. “Facebook is literally going to get someone killed rather than shut down or fix features that are profitable but encourage extremism. This should be fully investigated and stopped.”