Facebook said Wednesday that it will limit minors' access to pages and posts that offer firearms for sale, along with other measures that aim to curtail illegal gun trafficking.
"This is something we've been working on for a while," says Facebook spokesman Matt Steinfeld. "We want to balance the interests of people who come here to express themselves while promoting an environment that is safe and respectful."
The rules, which will be implemented in the coming weeks, will also apply to Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. Both sites will begin removing posts that indicate illegal activity, like ones that advertise "no background check required" or moving a firearm across state lines without the involvement of a licensed dealer.
The National Rifle Association was quick to accuse Facebook of bowing to pressure tactics from anti-gun groups. In a statement issued Wednesday, Chris W. Cox, executive director of NRA Institute for Legislative Action, said:
"The NRA enjoys 150 times more support on Facebook than Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns. That's why Bloomberg and the gun control groups he funds tried to pressure Facebook into shutting down discussion of Second Amendment issues on its social media platforms."
Some members of the Facebook community Guns For Sale, which has more than 200,000 "likes," also criticized the announcement, calling the new rules unconstitutional and unnecessary.
But the community's administrators posted a statement this afternoon noting that Guns For Sale was developed to help enthusiasts legally buy and sell guns, and that they "support the idea of keeping guns out of the hands of children and dangerous people (i.e. criminals who aren't allowed to own them). We applaud Facebook for taking a deeper look into this issue that will help make our country a safer place while still keeping our freedoms intact."
Facebook's announcement follows a push by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the advocacy group that was also behind Starbucks' gun ban announcement last fall. Alongside Moms Demand Action is a coalition of groups against gun violence, including Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Moms Demand Action's founder, Shannon Watts, says online purchases are nearly impossible to track. "To not know what's happening out there is truly frightening," she says.
Watts welcomes the new social media rules, but Moms Demand Action and similar groups acknowledge that no one really has a handle on how many guns are illegally trafficked via social media because most such purchases begin online but conclude offline.
"Frankly, it's just not a question that we can answer," says Erika Soto Lamb, spokeswoman for Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Lamb says Mayors Against Illegal Against and its allies were also motivated to take action by stories like that of a 15-year-old from Kentucky who bought a gun from an Ohio man online on Facebook last October. The student then brought that gun to school (no one was hurt).
Facebook spokesman Steinfeld says the company won't have a team monitoring for those kinds of illegal firearm sales.
"As with anything on Facebook, we'll be relying on our community of members to notify us," he says. "We encourage anybody who sees anything to bring it to our attention."
Steinfeld says that the new, gun-related reports will go to the same team that monitors complaints of bullying and hate speech. He doesn't have staffing numbers for the team or a comment on how they might handle the increased workload.
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