ATF says guns now being sold on apps such as Facebook, TikTok and Tinder

More guns are now trafficked to criminals through online sources such as Facebook, TikTok and Tinder than are trafficked at gun shows or flea markets, according to new Justice Department data that argues the marketplace for illegally obtained weapons is quickly evolving.

The report studied more than 8,000 gun trafficking cases from 2017 through 2021. Researchers found the most common source was a private person-to-person sale that didn’t go through a background check or a straw purchase to obtain a gun for someone prohibited.

Stolen weapons were the third most common factor, though online-orchestrated sales and “ghost” guns — untraceable firearms manufactured outside the official industry — were quickly growing as a source, according to the data compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.


Mr. Garland released the report before last week’s announcement of a regulation to expand the universe of gun sales subject to background checks. The timing was no accident.

Mr. Garland and fellow Biden administration officials said they would like to achieve universal background checks but the rule goes as far as the law allows. The rule creates a new standard for who is considered a firearms dealer, going beyond traditional gun store operators to include those who operate through print ads, at gun shows and in the growing online space.

ATF said that of the trafficking cases it reviewed, 3.6% involved weapons sold through online markets, 2.7% involved social media platforms and 1% had indications that a peer-to-peer app, such as WhatsApp, TikTok or Tinder, was used to facilitate the transaction.

That worked out to 83 trafficking cases that involved peer-to-peer apps.

The report identified five cases of firearms trafficking through the darknet.

Gun show sales were identified in 250 trafficking cases, or about 3% of the total studied.

“This is the most comprehensive survey ever of ATF’s thousands of expert gun trafficking agents to learn about the cases they do,” said ATF Director Steven Dettelbach.


Gun rights advocates said the data was shaped by an anti-gun administration but managed to puncture some gun control talking points. In particular, the data indicates that gun shows — a frequent source of ire from gun control activists — play only a minor role in trafficked firearms.

Aidan Johnston, director of federal affairs at Gun Owners of America, said the statistics showed that a large percentage of those who ended up with trafficked guns had no felony convictions, meaning a background check wouldn’t have snared them anyway.

“That’s why we need to focus on empowering Americans to focus on exercising their right to self-defense,” Mr. Johnston told The Washington Times.

ATF compiled the report based on a questionnaire sent to investigators for each of the thousands of investigations. The form asked how each investigation started, what types of arms were involved, how the guns were transferred and what channels were used for trafficking.

That included questions about gun shows and the use of social media such as Facebook and Instagram or peer-to-peer apps such as TikTok, Tinder and WhatsApp.

ATF declined to provide data on the breakdown of the TikTok and Tinder data specifically.

The data showed that the two most common factors in trafficking cases were unlicensed dealers and straw purchasers. Those two categories each represented around 40%.


Among other findings:

• More than half of trafficking cases involved machine guns or conversion devices to make semi-automatic weapons operate like automatic weapons.

• Stolen weapons were the third most common factor, with 17% of cases involving guns stolen from a licensed dealer and 8% stolen from a non-dealer.

• Corrupt licensed gun dealers were implicated in just 1.6% of cases.

• Roughly a third of cases involved weapons trafficked across state lines, down from 44% of cases in 2000.

Giffords, a major gun control group, said that puts pressure on states to investigate activity within their borders.

Although the average number of firearms trafficked per case was 16, the data was skewed by a couple of dozen cases involving more than 1,000 weapons each. Most cases, though, involved five or fewer weapons.

Mr. Johnston, at Gun Owners of America, found that worrying. He wondered why ATF invested so much energy in what seemed like small numbers.

“A person who sells five or fewer firearms is not involved in firearms trafficking,” he said. “It sounds like the administration is targeting individuals, and that’s coming at the expense of their Second Amendment rights.”


Gun control activists said the numbers fuel their fears about an overarmed America.

“Gun trafficking is an enormous problem in the United States that threatens our nation’s safety,” said Lindsay Nichols, policy director at the Giffords Law Center. “For 20 years, we had no data on this growing problem, but thanks to ATF Director Dettelbach and the Biden administration, we are finally making progress and finding solutions.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at

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