The gun rights debate is sticky and confusing, and things are no clearer online. Some e-commerce sites like eBay prohibit firearms sales to reduce liability and avoid interacting with widely varied state gun laws, but there are, of course, plenty of ways to buy a gun online either legally or illegally. Now Facebook is weighing in by introducing new policies that attempt to control illegal gun sales.
The “educational and enforcement measures” will delete posts about illegal gun transactions, remind users who may be gun sellers that gun sales are subject to state and federal regulation, and restrict minors from viewing pages where people sell or claim to sell guns.
Facebook is quick to explain that transactions never occur within the social network itself, but the company also acknowledges that as a free and ubiquitous service, its product can be used to coordinate lots of things, including the sale of illegal firearms. Under the new policies, users will be able to alert Facebook to pages that contain restricted content. Facebook will then review the case and present educational material to the offending user the next time she logs on. Facebook will also require pages for legal gun sellers to include educational material in their “About” section. On Instagram there will be “content advisories” for things like #buyguns searches.
Groups like Americans for Responsible Solutions, Sandy Hook Promise, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and Moms Demand Action have been putting the pressure on Facebook to make these types of changes for more than a year. But Facebook also seems to anticipate that these new policies make some accuse it of squashing speech. In the press release, Monika Bickert, Facebook's head of global policy management, writes:
People sometimes use our free tools to discuss products that are regulated or controversial. In some cases they promote these products for sale or use, even though it's not possible to complete a sale on Facebook or Instagram. While we've recently heard specific concerns from people about offers for the private sales of firearms, this is one of many areas where we face a difficult challenge balancing individuals' desire to express themselves on our services, and recognizing that this speech may have consequences elsewhere.
The determined will certainly still find ways to buy and sell illegal guns online, but Facebook is a big enough service that these new policies could actually make a difference in reducing access both on the buyer and seller sides. It's nice to see Facebook throwing its weight around on an important national topic and not just in the aquisitions game.