Online gun sellers are facing greater scrutiny after the second-deadliest shooting in U.S. history, spurring a nationwide debate and proposals to limit the availability of firearms.
Among them is Armslist LLC, an Oklahoma-based online gun marketplace, which is being sued for wrongful death by the family of Jitka Vesel, whose killer shot her as many as a dozen times with a weapon advertised on the site.
The lawsuit came two days before the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre that left 28 dead, including the gunman, his mother and 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was the latest mass shooting in a deadly year, following an attack in a Colorado movie theater that killed 12 and wounded 58, and another at a Wisconsin Sikh temple that left six dead.
“Under current law, there’s a gaping Internet loophole which enables gun websites to facilitate illegal gun sales that result in gun crimes and gun deaths,” said Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project at the Washington-based Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and a lawyer representing Vesel’s family. “Felons, the dangerously mentally ill and domestic-violence abusers can buy guns no questions asked.”
A telephone listing for Armslist in Oklahoma wasn’t available. Representatives of the company didn’t immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment on the lawsuit sent through its website.
Armslist.com enables illegal interstate arms sales because it doesn’t make buyers or sellers provide identification, according to the complaint filed in state court in Chicago by Alex Vesely, the victim’s brother. There’s no background check required for private gun sales in most states, Lowy said.
“They should be going after the criminal who committed the crime,” Larry Pratt, executive director of Springfield, Virginia-based Gun Owners of America, said in a telephone interview about the Vesel case.
Online gun sales are “perfectly legitimate,” Pratt said. “It’s called something that is protected by the Second Amendment.”
Television station KSL in Salt Lake City temporarily suspended firearms listings in its online classified ads after the Newtown shootings, according to a statement Dec. 18 on its website.
“Especially during this time when the country is feeling so much sadness, we feel it’s the best decision to pause our involvement in the firearms marketplace,” said Chris Lee, president of Deseret Digital Media, which oversees KSL.com.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg commended the move in a statement Dec. 19, calling KSL’s decision “a critical step toward keeping illegal weapons out of the hands of dangerous individuals.”
The mayor’s office last year said an investigation into Internet arms sales found “a vast and largely unregulated” market for illegal weapons, with 62 percent of private sellers willing to provide firearms to people who weren’t likely to pass a background check, according to a December 2011 statement from Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
The mayor is co-chairman of the group and founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
In the Armslist lawsuit, Vesely alleges his sister’s killer, Demetry Smirnov, illegally bought a .40-caliber handgun from a private seller in Seattle he located through the website.
The seller, who was convicted for his role in Jitka Vesel’s death, admitted at his sentencing that Smirnov had paid him extra because he lived out of state, couldn’t buy it legally, and users of Armslist.com could easily evade gun laws, according to the lawsuit.
“Armslist matches buyers and sellers solely based on Armslist’s mandatory drop-down menus that steer illegal buyers to illegal sellers,” Vesely said. “Armslist’s development of content thus materially contributes to the illegality of the gun sales it promotes.”
Jitka Vesel, 36, was shot 11 to 12 times by Smirnov in the parking lot of the Czechoslovak Heritage Museum in Oak Brook, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Smirnov, a Canadian resident, had stalked her after she rebuffed his romantic overtures, according to Vesely. Smirnov, now serving a life prison sentence without parole, paid an extra $200 for the gun that had been listed for $400 because he couldn’t buy it legally, according to the complaint.
Armslist says on its website that it was created by “gun owning and gun loving Americans” because other Internet market places shun firearms.
U.S. Representative Gwen Moore, a Wisconsin Democrat, sent a letter to the company on Oct. 26 in an effort to crack down on dubious gun sales. The letter claimed a man, who wouldn’t have passed a background check, killed three people with a gun purchased on the website.
EBay Inc. (EBAY), Craigslist, Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) and Google Inc. (GOOG) prohibit listing guns for sale, according to Vesely’s complaint.
The case is Vesely v. Armslist, 2012-L-013945, Illinois Circuit Court, Cook County (Chicago).
To contact the reporters on this story: Alison Vekshin in San Francisco at email@example.com; Edvard Pettersson in Los Angeles at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman in New York at email@example.com.