MENLO PARK -- Social media have quickly become an unlikely "21st century black market" for arranging gun sales -- and Facebook responded to that unpleasant reality Wednesday by announcing rules to crack down on illegal firearms sales.
But many observers fear that the company's efforts -- including deleting some illicit posts and warning people to obey the law on Facebook and its Instagram subsidiary -- will have little impact on the burgeoning online exchange.
Popular buy-and-sell websites like Craigslist and eBay ban the sale of firearms, so many gun owners and buyers in recent years have turned to Facebook and other social networks to sell weapons -- and sometimes to evade state and federal laws.
Gun-control advocates say gun deals set up through social media have even surpassed unregulated sales at gun shows, with some buyers and sellers specifically discussing how to avoid background checks.
A quick search of Facebook and Instagram Wednesday revealed a brisk trade in firearms. Sellers from around the nation posted photos of all kinds of rifles and handguns -- and people haggling over price. But it's what happens once those buyers and sellers go offline to finish the sales that has caused the greatest concern.
In essence, whether gun laws are obeyed depends on the honor system.
Bobby Herrera, 19, of Southern California, posted an offer Monday to sell a Kassnar M-1600 .22-caliber semi-automatic rifle for $400. And he told a reporter Wednesday that one caller had asked him to "just file off the serial number and send it to him like that -- but I can't do that."
"I've never sold a gun illegally," he said. "We always have to transfer it" through a licensed dealer.
Federal law doesn't require background checks for sellers at gun shows and sales between private citizens, but 15 states -- including New York and California -- plus the District of Columbia do require background checks for all firearms sales.
Facebook's new rules focus on four areas, said Monika Bickert, Facebook's head of global policy management: informing private sellers and buyers that all laws still apply even if sales are arranged online; helping people learn what those laws are; restricting children's access to posts discussing private gun sales; and removing any content that specifically discusses evading the law, particularly regarding background checks.
"We believe these collective efforts represent the right approach in balancing people's desire to express themselves freely while promoting a safe, responsible community," she said.
Still, some gun-control advocates question whether a warning to follow the law and reporting by Facebook and Instagram will have any effect on illegal gun sales.
"As we and thousands of others have told Facebook, unlicensed gun sales have no place on the social network," said Daniel Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "Facebook should prohibit all posts that advertise the unlicensed sale or transfer of firearms in the United States. Sadly, it's only a matter of time before a gun purchased through Facebook without a background check is used in a terrible tragedy. "
Facebook spokesman Matt Steinfeld acknowledged that the company won't do its own searches for such potentially problematic posts, but rather will rely on reports from law enforcement, advocacy groups and Facebook users. With more than 1.2 billion users worldwide, he said, it's "the world's largest neighborhood watch program."
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose office helped broker Facebook's new rules, said: "Responsible social media sites know it's in nobody's interests to let their sites become a 21st-century black market."
Schneiderman called the new rules "probably the strongest step that has been taken ever to stop illegal sales of firearms on social media sites."
Administrators of a "Guns For Sale" Facebook page, liked by almost 214,000 users, posted a message Wednesday indicating they're OK with the changes: "We 100% 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."
Among the page's most recent posts were two ads from Florida and Minnesota offering AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles; one from Mississippi offering an Extar pistol that accepts a 30-round AR-15 magazine and ammunition; and one from Pennsylvania offering a Taurus .44 Magnum revolver.
Gun Owners of California "has no problems with any private company taking actions to insure that their services are not being utilized for illegal purposes," executive director Sam Paredes said Wednesday. "That is the American way."
But Paredes said the issue is a red herring "promoted by moneyed elitists like former New York Mayor (Michael) Bloomberg who are dedicated to the elimination of the private possession of firearms. They, and any law enforcement agency that is willing to tell the truth, know full well that the vast majority of firearms used in the commission of crime are stolen guns."
Beginning immediately, Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram will:
Delete reported posts that indicate that the seller will not conduct a background check or that a buyer is seeking to avoid a background check.
Delete reported posts that indicate that a seller is willing to sell across state lines.
Block all users under age 18 from viewing reported posts from individual gun sellers or gun pages on which guns are sold or traded.
Let users report posts that may facilitate or promote potentially illegal gun activity.
Continue reporting to law enforcement any gun-related posts that may pose a threat to public safety.
Require private sellers who are reported for offering a gun for sale to acknowledge the relevant laws that apply to them -- including that background checks may be required before completing a sale. Until the seller acknowledges this, he or she will be blocked from the site.
Require that all Facebook pages and groups involving gun sales prominently state that sellers and buyers must comply with all applicable laws, including conducting a background check where required.
Require Instagram users who search for hashtag related to gun offers (like "#guns4sale") to acknowledge the relevant laws that apply to them in this area before they can see search results.
Provide public education ad space targeted at users interested in firearm-related content to ensure they know about the laws related to gun sales.