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Facebook, Instagram give dodgy online gun sales the BULLET

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Bowing to public pressure, Facebook and Instagram have announced new policies aimed at curbing the sale of firearms and other legally questionable items via their online services.

"People sometimes use our free tools to discuss products that are regulated or controversial," Facebook policy head Monika Bickert acknowledged on Wednesday. "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."

Specifically, the social network has lately been under fire from such groups as Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action, which have criticized the ease with which gun buyers and sellers can arrange transactions on Facebook.

Amazon it isn't, but the process is simple enough. Gun sellers set up profiles full of photographs displaying the wares they have for sale, inviting prospective buyers to message them privately to discuss terms. The actual sales then happen offline, with buyers and sellers meeting privately to make the exchange.

By arranging sales in this way, gun dealers can flout various state and federal firearms regulations, such as laws requiring gun buyers to show identification, or those forbidding sales of guns to minors.

"Anyone who couldn't pass a background check – for instance, a domestic abuser or a felon – can just log on to the social media gun show on Facebook or Instagram and find a private seller," the Moms Demand Action web page on the subject alleges. "In fact, you have to provide more information to create a Facebook account than you do to complete a gun sale or trade initiated online."

'A willingness to evade or help others evade the law'

Facebook has been reluctant to ban gun-related profiles, however, over concerns that taking such actions would infringe upon its users' free speech.

"We work hard to find a balance between enabling people to express themselves about topics that are important to them, and creating an environment that is safe and respectful," Bickert wrote.

But beginning on Wednesday, Bickert said, the social network and its Instagram subsidiary will begin enforcing new policies regarding posts that discuss the private sale of "commonly regulated items," including firearms.

Whenever Facebook receives a tip that a given post is advertising regulated items for sale, it will restrict access to that post to people over the age of 18 and send a note to its author reminding him or her to comply with all pertinent laws.

Facebook Pages that are primarily used to promote sales of regulated goods or services must henceforth similarly include language reminding their subscribers of the need to comply with applicable laws, and they must also enforce age restrictions where the law requires them.

Posts that "indicate a willingness to evade or help others evade the law" – such as those offering to sell firearms across state lines without the participation of a licensed dealer – are banned.

Finally, Instagram will build "in-app education" into its products for people who search for gun sales or promotions.

In addition, Bickert said, "Facebook and Instagram will continue to remove content, and notify law enforcement where appropriate, when we are notified about things shared on our services that suggest a direct, credible risk to others' safety."

Various pressure groups that had been lobbying Facebook to take action on the issue said they were pleased with the social network's approach.

"We are happy that these companies listened to American mothers and we believe these changes are a major step toward making sure people who buy or sell guns on their platforms know the law, and follow it," Shannon Watts of Moms Against Guns said in a statement. ®

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