While the buying and selling of illegal firearms on the Internet is not rampant, the trade does exist and threatens to grow faster than law enforcement agencies and national governments’ ability to contain it.
A new report from Rand Europe, titled “Behind the curtain: The illicit trade of firearms, explosives and ammunition on the dark web,” marks the first attempt to describe and quantify sales of arms and explosives on the cryptomarkets of the dark web. They are only accessible through the use of special software and are best known for sites such as Silk Road that sold illegal drugs until the cryptomarkets were busted by the FBI more than three years ago.
First some top-level numbers. Rand Europe found 24 English/French language cryptomarkets of which 18 were determined to sell arms-related goods. Of those, 15 had rules explicitly permitting — or not explicitly forbidding — arms sales, and nine of the 18 provided a dedicated firearms category in which sellers could list their products.
The study identified 811 product listings for arms-related products of which pistols were by far the most common product followed by rifles and sub-machine guns. The majority of firearms were operable although the sub-machine guns were mostly replicas.
The 811 product listings found represented just 0.5% of the total number of listings the researchers collected, a quantity they called “marginal.”
There was, however, one product area that should raise some concern:
“Particularly relevant is the fact that the second-most common product category is represented by digital products. These include both manuals on how to manufacture firearms and explosives at home and 3D models to enable home-based printing of fully functioning firearms or their parts.”
Even though accounting for just 11 of the arms-related items listed for sale, the researchers highlighted 3D models especially, maybe because they are so cheap at an average price of just $12:
“The availability of 3D models for additive manufacturing of parts, components or full firearms has been recognised by the international community as a major source of concern. With the improvement of commercially available 3D printers (e.g. increased accuracy, better quality of materials used for the printing), the possibility of producing at home viable substitute parts to replace, for example, those bearing identification markings on a firearm may hamper the ability of tracing illegal firearms back to their last legal owner, identifying the point of diversion.”
Of a total of 151 live pistols that Rand Europe found listed for sale either alone or bundled with ammunition or other parts, Glock was the top brand, with 58 total listings and a mean price of $1,189 for a pistol sold by itself. A total of 18 Ruger pistols were listed, and of the 16 listed by themselves the mean price was $752. Smith & Wesson pistols were the subject of 11 listings and the mean price for nine listed alone was $799.
The average price for any gun on the dark web was just below $1,200.