Debates on gun regulations make headlines around the world, but there is an underground operation for weapons that attracted little attention – until now. Researchers at Michigan State University have entered the dark web to investigate how firearms are bought and sold anonymously around the world.
"We know so little about the distribution of firearms sold on the dark web which is a kind of black hole, similar to illicit pharmaceuticals and narcotics: we know people buy online, but we do not know to what extent," said Thomas . Holt, MSU professor of criminal justice and co-author. "The more we understand how weapons move, how they are sold, and what types of weapons are available on the dark web, the more we understand how the Internet can serve as a niche market for weapon delivery."
The research, published in Deviant Behavior, revealed important information about a trade that reduces gun laws in the United States as well as in other countries around the world where regulations are tightened.
"What I found most surprising was that most of what we saw were not military-grade rifles," Holt said. "Instead of rare or exotic firearms, we saw handguns – the types of weapons someone in the US could buy in stores or sellers with a license. Moreover, the prices of these weapons were not dramatically different from what you would find if you were buying legally.These observations raise the question: "Why the dark web, instead?"
Sixty-four percent of the products advertised were short guns, 17% were semi-automatic long guns and automatic long guns were 4%.
There are many reasons why buyers can turn to the dark web to buy a gun, Holt said. An example would be a buyer who can not legally obtain a firearm; Another explanation would be that the buyer lives in a country with stricter gun laws. Regardless, Holt said that because the dark web allows for total anonymity, it supports his theory that black Web shoppers are those who could not legally purchase a firearm.
Holt and partners have dug out stores, or single-owner websites hosted on Tor, a dark web browser, using a scaping tool to track vendors anonymously by selling firearms as well as to identity patterns of their operations. Common segments among vendors included: vendors selling deliberately hand and long guns; the use of bitcoin for payment; vendor stores requesting mailboxes to ship the product; and how the sellers handed the guns.
From these consistencies, collected between February 2016 and May 2016, Holt was able to draw conclusions – as well as ask more objective questions for follow-up research.
"Sellers were very clear about how the transaction would go, which underscored the need for consistent secrecy. Some profile names have indicated that they operated outside Europe, but there is little more to say about who these people are," Holt said. "Sellers often say they ship the product in separate pieces and hide it in books, shoes, cocoa, computer parts and other innocuous things, and are alerted if a piece is held at customs."
While the dark web masks the identity, location, and any vestige of user persona, Holt's findings reveal the need for more research and potential growth and impact.
"We should not consider these trivial markets because they can grow, travel and change very quickly. It takes only a weapon bought by the dark web to kill someone and the danger is very real," Holt said. "While the technology does not allow us as researchers to know who these sellers and buyers are, we can confirm that transactions are very real, that they are international in scope and that buyers may be violating key government regulations and guidelines. can attend to great violence and the danger is that we do not know to what extent. "
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