If you're a terrorist, a guerrilla, or are aspiring toward either, The Armory might be your gun depot of choice. But for anyone not on the government's radar, 100-per cent legal, open websites are all you need to plan an American massacre. This is a little scary.
Editor's note: This is a follow-up feature to Sam's awesome piece on The Armory. Thankfully, the purchase of guns, ammunition and other accessories in Australia is highly regulated, and importation of illegal firearms is closely monitored by the hard-working men and women of the Customs and Border Protection Service who don't miss a beat. This article is for informational purposes, and despite it's US-centric focus, it's a fascinating insight into how easy it is for anyone to get their hands on a gun in the US.
It doesn't appear James Holmes broke any laws of the US or Colorado until he allegedly opened fire in that crowded theatre. Up until that point, he was just another guy accumulating multiple firearms, bullet-maximising accessories, and thousands upon thousands of bullets. All it took to create a cache of weapons capable of mass murder was time, money, and internet savvy — three things most Americans have at least some of.
With only Google and a few nouns, you can find everything you need to kill lots of people.
Plug a few simple search terms in, and a bevy of eager online merchants will ring you up. Unlike The Armory, there's no need for encryption software and no need for secrecy. What you're doing is either enshrined in the glistening gunmetal sanctity of the 2nd Amendment, or in a regulatory void, either super-legal or ignored. The bottom line is you can get it all with a few clicks. It might even show up at your doorstep within days.
With the exception of military-grade machine guns, you can buy virtually any kind of firearm online, including the Bushmaster AR-15 allegedly used by James Holmes — a semi-auto rifle that'll blast a shot with every pull of the trigger, shooting as quickly as you can move your finger.
Let's take BudsGunShop — one of countless online weapons dealers. It's entirely on the level, with a brick and mortar HQ in Lexington, Kentucky. It even has a Pinterest button.
Bud's will sell you this semi-automatic Adcor defence B.E.A.R., for a little over $US1,500. Shipping is free. An AR-15 can be snapped up for under $US900.
If that's beyond your budget, you can still get semi-automatic action for around $US500, with the Heckler & Koch Rimfire 416 — a variant of a weapon deployed by US Army forces in Iraq.
A semi-auto Glock 17 will run you $US500 each. Holmes allegedly carried two, along with a Remington 870 shotgun: available for $US325. There's even a "VIP Club" for expedited shipping:
"** Fast Track" orders placed by 12:00 PM EST will ship within one business day (excludes weekends) ."
But amassing an armoury isn't as easy as stuffing all these weapons in your shopping cart and beaming over your credit card information. Guns can't be shipped directly to your house. A federally licensed dealer needs to act as a proxy. Most websites, like Bud's, already have a list of approved "FFL" dealers in your area for you to choose from a dropdown menu. The website will take your money and ship the gun to the dealer, the dealer collects a fee. Then you show up at the dealership for a telephone or internet background check, and if you're not a convicted felon, off you go. But don't worry, this background check is a piece of cake. In fact, despite being mandated from one of the few tough gun laws on the books, you'll hardly notice the<a href="www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/nics" National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) at all:
"The FFLs will provide the descriptive information requested on the ATF Form 4473, which is required by law to be completed and signed by every prospective firearm transferee. The FFL will receive a response that the transfer may proceed or is delayed. This response is typically provided within 30 seconds. If no matching records are returned by any of the databases, the transaction is automatically proceeded."
The guns are then legally yours for the shooting, so long as you're not a criminal, fugitive or insane. You might, however, have to do a little IRL legwork if you want to pick up more than one without setting off alarms.
Laws vary from state to state as to how many guns you can purchase at once from the same dealer — this might explain why James Holmes bought his first Glock in May, and then went back again shortly before his alleged shooting spree to buy another. But as there's no central government database to track any of this stuff, if you send your online purchases to a few different physical FFL dealers nearby, you won't have any trouble at all. Ben Van Houten of the Law centre to Prevent Gun Violence explains just how easily this gear can be picked up:
"Under federal law, there is no waiting period required between gun sales. A dealer may transfer a firearm to a prospective purchaser as soon as he or she passes a background check. Federal law also does not limit the number of guns a person can buy in any given time period. Federal law does require licensed firearms dealers to report multiple sales of handguns to ATF [Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agency], although ATF is not charged with any investigative duties regarding those sales."
Unlimited purchases and free shipping? It sounds disturbingly like Amazon Prime, only for deadly weapons instead of books and socks.
If you know someone who's willing to privately sell you a gun — someone without any kind of licence to deal, whatsoever — that's even easier in almost every state. "Federal law only requires persons who are "engaged in the business" of dealing in firearms to be licensed," explains Van Houten. "Private sellers are not subject to the federal laws regulating gun dealers." A recent NYC government report cited the same fact before stating that private online sales were rampant and dangerous:
Only licensed gun dealers, also known as federal firearms licensees (FFLs), are required to conduct checks and keep paperwork on buyers. Because private sellers
– individuals who are not "engaged in the business" of selling firearms but who make "occasional sales" from private collections — are presumed to be hobbyists, they have no obligation to conduct checks.
You'll have absolutely no trouble buying more of ammunition than it's easy to imagine a sane use for. In fact, you can even buy ammo in bulk. In fact, there's even a website which has literally zero limits on how many bullets it'll sell you, of all varieties — including hollow-point rounds designed to expand and shred human tissue. It's no wonder Holmes bought his bullets here.
Twenty two thousand rounds of 5.56x45 shells for an AR-15 can be bought en masse for $US8,800. This site isn't the exception — none of the sites I queried have any purchasing limit. In fact, one seller's customer service rep, after I told her I wanted "all of their bullets," told me they'd be happy to bring in more for me to buy. This jibes with the complete absence of any law regulating or tracking the sale of ammunition in the United States. No law enforcement entity, local, state, or federal, will ever ask why you want or need 22,000 bullets. Or more. Nobody would ask if you — or you and your friends — bought 100,000 rounds of ammunition.
If you're interested in buying something that'll allow you to shoot a bigger chunk of your bullet bin before reloading, you'll have to pony up for an extended magazine. That's the bad news. The good news is that only eight states (California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio) have any laws against bigger mags. In the rest of the union, you're free to buy a 100-round AR-15 ammo drum, which James Holmes allegedly used, and should give you an appreciable tactical advantage over any home intruder and/or deer.
Before embarking on his alleged shooting, Holmes strapped on a ballistic helmet, tactical ballistic vest, ballistic leggings, throat protectors, groin protector, gas mask, and tactical gloves — enough to let him blend in with the police sent to stop him. The vest — along with gear to hold extra gun magazines, and a knife — were purchased at TacticalGear, which sells military-grade armour and clothing. To whom? Pretty much anyone, it would seem, after talking with the company's CEO, Chad Weinman:
We do sell plate carriers and ceramic ballistic plates, which compromise a 'bulletproof vest' but these items are not available to the general public. They require valid law enforcement or military credentials to acquire.
Really? Is that credential requirement mandated by federal law, or is it just company policy?
That's an excellent question Sam. Our suppliers designate specific items, such as ballistic-grade vests, as "restricted." Items with this designation can only be sold to members of the military or law enforcement professionals per the direction of our suppliers. We have always complied with this request. I do not personally know whether or not this is mandated by federal law.
That Weiner's company goes beyond the mandate of the law might sound reassuring, but as he admits, the policy isn't even enforced:
"We do not verify private security contractors or their employees...While we strongly condemn the unspeakable actions of Mr. Holmes, we do not believe that gun, ammunition or tactical gear dealers should be held responsible for the actions of a deranged individual."
No. And even if these apparel stores do start enforcing their own policies, there are almost as many sites selling armour plates and vests as there are bullets to shoot at them; again, Google will point you wherever you need to go. It really is that easy to make your torso cop-proof.
To buy every item James Holmes allegedly used to kill 12 people and deliver gunshot wounds to another 71 would cost you $US5,922 — a song, owing mostly to deep discounts. This is a long way from the $15,000 CBS is citing, so maybe throw in extra for smoke grenades and upgraded weaponry. The point is, with just six grand and an internet connection, you could be equipped with enough gear to rate with one of American history's most atrocious acts.
Whether you call it a tool, or a tube, or the greatest thing mankind has ever put together, the internet is a thing that may have helped a killer quickly amass a relatively inexpensive toolkit for murder. People make the laws and people pull the triggers, but all the metal and wires and pins and coils empower those people. The internet has made guns easier to buy than they've ever been in the history of civilisation. The internet has made 22,000 rounds of rifle ammo, delivered to your doorstep overnight, a thing that's possible. The internet lets you comparison shop shotguns while lying in bed.
The internet was an accessory this horrible tragedy, and that is worth thinking about, no matter what your beliefs.