Skip to main content

Internet Firearm Sales: ATF Enforcement Efforts and Outcomes of GAO Covert Testing

GAO-18-24 Published: Nov 21, 2017. Publicly Released: Dec 21, 2017.
Jump To:
Skip to Highlights


What GAO Found

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is responsible for investigating criminal and regulatory violations of firearms statutes and regulations that govern firearms transactions, including sales that are facilitated by the Internet. Two components of the Internet may be used to facilitate Internet firearm sales: the Surface Web and the Dark Web. The Surface Web is searchable with standard web search engines. The Dark Web contains content that has been intentionally concealed and requires specific computer software to gain access. ATF created the Internet Investigations Center (Center) to investigate buyers and sellers who use the Internet to facilitate illegal firearms transactions. The Center uses several tools to provide investigative support to ATF, which has resulted in the arrests of individuals using the Internet to facilitate illegal firearm purchases. ATF officials with the Center also noted that investigations might involve both the Surface Web and the Dark Web. For example, to identify an anonymous user on the Dark Web, the Center works to establish a user's “digital footprint” on the Surface Web.

In 2016, the Center also issued a report about Internet firearm transactions. This and other ATF reports highlighted the following about Internet-facilitated firearm transactions:

The relative anonymity of the Internet makes it an ideal means for prohibited individuals to obtain illegal firearms.

The more anonymity employed by a firearms purchaser, the greater the likelihood that the transaction violates federal law.

Firearm transactions that occur on the Dark Web are more likely to be completed in person or via the mail or common carrier, versus through a Federal Firearm Licensee.

GAO agents attempted to purchase firearms from Dark Web and Surface Web marketplaces. Agents made seven attempts to purchase firearms on the Dark Web. In these attempts, agents did not disclose any information about whether they were prohibited from possessing a firearm. Of these seven attempts, two on a Dark Web marketplace were successful. Specifically, GAO agents purchased and received an AR-15 rifle and an Uzi that the seller said was modified so that it would fire automatically. GAO provided referral letters to applicable law-enforcement agencies for these purchases to inform any ongoing investigations.

Tests performed on the Surface Web demonstrated that private sellers GAO contacted on gun forums and other classified ads were unwilling to sell a firearm to an individual who appeared to be prohibited from possessing a firearm. Of the 72 attempts agents made to purchase firearms on the Surface Web, 56 sellers refused to complete a transaction: 29 sellers stated they would not ship a firearm and 27 refused after the disclosure of the undercover identities' stated prohibited status. Furthermore, in 5 of these 72 attempts, the accounts GAO set up were frozen by the websites, which prevented the agents from using the forums and attempting to make a purchase.

Why GAO Did This Study

The current federal legal framework governing buying and selling of firearms does not specifically address the use of the Internet to facilitate these transactions. Additionally, private transactions involving the most-common types of firearms between individuals who are not licensed to commercially sell weapons and who are residents of the same state, including transactions facilitated by the Internet, are generally not subject to federal background-check requirements.

Congressional requesters asked that GAO assess the extent to which ATF is enforcing existing laws and investigate whether online private sellers sell firearms to people who are not allowed or eligible to possess a firearm. This report describes (1) techniques ATF uses to investigate and enforce generally applicable firearm laws in instances where the firearm or firearm-component transaction is facilitated by the Internet and (2) results of GAO's undercover attempts to buy firearms on the Dark Web and Surface Web.

GAO analyzed documents and interviewed officials to identify actions ATF has taken to prohibit illegal firearm transactions. GAO also attempted to purchase firearms from Dark Web and Surface Web marketplaces. The results of the testing are illustrative and nongeneralizable.


GAO is not making recommendations in this report. ATF provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate.

Full Report

Office of Public Affairs


Federal lawFederal regulationsCriminalsFirearmsGun control lawInternetArrestsInvestigations by federal agenciesRisk managementSalesUndercover operationsWebsites