Politics

13 senators demand answers from Zuckerberg on Facebook gun sales

A letter signed by Menendez, Markey, Warren, Klobuchar and others responded to a Protocol investigation: "Unfortunately, it is not enough to simply ban such sales."

Sen. Robert Menendez (right) and Richard Blumenthal

Sens. Robert Menendez (right) and Richard Blumenthal (left) are among more than a dozen legislators asking Facebook to explain why guns are still for sale on the social network.

Photo: Win McNamee via Getty Images

More than a dozen Democratic senators demanded Thursday that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explain why his website's users appear to have little trouble engaging in private, unregulated gun sales more than four years after the company banned them.

In a letter sent Thursday morning, 13 senators led by Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ed Markey of Massachusetts said they had serious concerns that Facebook's effort to eliminate private gun sales on its platforms had fallen short. Sens. Chris Murphy, Richard Blumenthal, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Jack Reed, Mazie Hirono, Sheldon Whitehouse, Patty Murray, Dick Durbin, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker joined the letter, responding to an investigation by Protocol that found that gun owners are using thinly veiled, coded language to evade Facebook's algorithms and arrange gun sales in private groups.

Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.

"We write to express concern that despite Facebook's ban of gun sales on its platforms, users are nonetheless able to facilitate firearm transactions in private Facebook groups specifically designed to skirt Facebook's ban on firearm sales," the letter reads. "In light of troubling reporting, we request information on the steps Facebook is taking to combat gun sales facilitated through private Facebook groups."

The senators acknowledged that Facebook has taken steps to proactively catch suspected gun sales, an effort the company undertook in 2016 after Congress failed to enact universal background checks in response to intense political pressure following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. However, the senators said Facebook's enforcement of its ban, based largely on a keyword-based algorithm and bolstered by users manually flagging posts for human review, isn't enough. They asked Facebook to respond to their questions, including how the company expects users to report violations within private groups, by March 12.

"Unfortunately, it is not enough to simply ban such sales. Effective monitoring, including the suspension of accounts in violation of these policies, is essential," the senators wrote.

Related: Facebook tried to ban gun sales 4 years ago. It's still trying.

A Facebook spokeswoman confirmed the company received the letter, but declined to comment. In the past, the company has said it remains committed to eliminating gun sales on its platforms, and has tweaked its algorithm to be more effective than when Facebook first banned the sale of guns and ammunition in 2016.

In most states, gun owners are legally allowed to sell firearms to each other without government regulation, sometimes referred to as the "gun show loophole." A handful of states, including California where Facebook is headquartered, require gun owners to complete sales through a licensed gun dealer, which holds onto the gun while it conducts a background check of the buyer.

Protocol's reporting earlier this month focused on obvious gun sales in the Virginia Gun Enthusiast group on Facebook, and there has been no indication that the company has tried to step in and restrict those exchanges. It appears to be business as usual in the group, ostensibly a "discussion group" for gun owners to talk about guns, similar to countless others across the country. In reality, the group serves as a digital swap meet where buyers and sellers meet and arrange sales via private message.

Screenshot of the Virginia Gun Enthusiast Facebook group The Virginia Gun Enthusiast group on Facebook is still very active.Screenshot: Protocol

On Feb. 18, a new group member posted a message, "Interested in discussing the merits of the G19. Anyone want to debate?" in an apparent reference to the popular Glock 19 handgun.

"Pm me," a fellow group member responded, urging him to send a private message.

A Feb. 19 post demonstrated how easy it is for users to get around Facebook's keyword algorithm. "I'm thinking about getting a sub-2bills revolver; probably a point-3-eight. Anyone want to PM me some encouragement?" a user posted, spelling out numbers to ask about a .38-caliber revolver for less than $200.

A fellow group member quickly replied, clearing up any ambiguity by offering up a suggestion on where to look for such a gun. "You should take that dollar sign out of your post but armscor makes a rock island .38 for 210 beans which isn't bad."

Get in touch with us: Share information securely with Protocol via encrypted Signal or WhatsApp message, at 415-214-4715 or through our anonymous SecureDrop.

On Feb. 24, a user posted pictures of a semiautomatic AR-15-style rifle made by Heckler & Koch of Germany. The gun is shown with a carrying case and a half-dozen magazines filled with ammunition, under the words "Not for sale not for trade."

The first person to respond to the post wrote, "PM sent.. cool pics. Let's discuss."

Podcasts

Crypto’s big crash

Is the tech superbubble about to burst?

red and blue light streaks
Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash

This week, we're diving into the crypto crash. What led luna to fall off a cliff? Are we seeing the dot-com bust, part two? Protocol fintech editor Owen Thomas explains it all to us. Then entertainment reporter Janko Roettgers joins us to share the inside scoop on his exclusive interview with Mark Zuckerberg. We learn why Meta is betting it all on the metaverse and Brian finally gets to ask the most pressing question on his mind this week: What does Mark smell like?

And finally, Caitlin and Brian take a moment to reminisce about the iPod, which was put out to pasture this week after more than two decades on the market.

Keep Reading Show less
Caitlin McGarry

Caitlin McGarry is the news editor at Protocol.

Sponsored Content

Foursquare data story: leveraging location data for site selection

We take a closer look at points of interest and foot traffic patterns to demonstrate how location data can be leveraged to inform better site selecti­on strategies.

Imagine: You’re the leader of a real estate team at a restaurant brand looking to open a new location in Manhattan. You have two options you’re evaluating: one site in SoHo, and another site in the Flatiron neighborhood. Which do you choose?

Keep Reading Show less
Enterprise

Say goodbye to unicorns. The cloud centaurs are here.

Protocol caught up with Bessemer Venture Partners’ Kent Bennett to discuss the state of the cloud, the new SaaS models poised to make a dent on the industry and why the firm developed a new SaaS milestone.

Bessemer Venture Partners developed a new SaaS milestone that it’s calling the “centaur,” for startups that reach over $100 million in annual recurring revenue.

Photo: Bessemer Venture Partners

Kent Bennett thinks the SaaS business model is the “greatest business model in the history of the planet.” As a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, it’s fitting that he’s bullish on the cloud: Bennett was one of the main authors of Bessemer’s annual State of the Cloud report, which gives a bird's eye view of what’s happening in the cloud economy.

In the report, Bessemer analyzed everything from the new ways SaaS companies are trying to monetize their software to what areas are still underserved by SaaS. The firm also developed a new SaaS milestone that it’s calling the “centaur,” for startups that reach over $100 million in annual recurring revenue.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software. Formerly, she was a management consultant for EY. She's based in Los Angeles and can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

Climate

The future of electrification, according to Google Trends

People are searching more often for how to electrify their lives, from induction stoves to e-bikes.

From “induction stove” to “home EV charging,” search interest is rising.

Photo: Michael Tuszynski via Unsplash

Feeling cynical about the state of the climate? Well, it’s hardly a guarantee of a liveable climate, but a peek at Google Trends might provide a glimmer of hope.

People are increasingly ready for the all-electric future at home and on the road. From “induction stove” to “home EV charging,” search interest is rising. And while climate change is certainly not up to the individual to solve — that’s mainly on governments and corporations — shifts in public tastes can bring about policy changes. Fast. (See: outdoor dining in major cities; marriage equality.)

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

What Elon's Twitter 'hold' even means

The answers to all the Musk-iest Twitter acquisition questions.

Keep in mind that Elon Musk isn't exactly known for telling the truth.

Photo illustration: Getty Images; Unsplash; Protocol

Elon Musk can tweet anything he likes, because he’s Elon Musk, and he’s buying Twitter, and free speech is awesome. What he can’t do is make false tweets true.

Musk said Friday that the Twitter deal was temporarily on hold while he looked into a report that spam bots and other fake accounts made up less than 5% of its users. He added, hours after his first tweet, that he was “still committed to [the] acquisition.” Investors promptly sold off shares of Twitter, thinking that Musk’s words somehow had meaning, embodied intent or otherwise had an impact on the world. They did not, eppur si muove, and yet the stock market moved.

Keep Reading Show less
Owen Thomas

Owen Thomas is a senior editor at Protocol overseeing venture capital and financial technology coverage. He was previously business editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and before that editor-in-chief at ReadWrite, a technology news site. You're probably going to remind him that he was managing editor at Valleywag, Gawker Media's Silicon Valley gossip rag. He lives in San Francisco with his husband and Ramona the Love Terrier, whom you should follow on Instagram.

Latest Stories
Bulletins