‘You know what these are for’: How EBay sellers dodge its assault weapons ban
Los Angeles Times June 9, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — AR-15s are largely illegal to sell in California. So are high-capacity magazines that can hold more than 10 bullets. But should you manage to get your hands on both, you can reload them faster than ever with just $10.99 and a few clicks on EBay.
That’s the promise of the “Universal Magazine Speed Loader For Rifle,” a product meant to cut down on how long it takes to slot ammunition into a gun magazine.
Until last week, the speed loader was available for purchase on the e-commerce platform, with free shipping from Shanghai. Fifty-nine units had already been sold.
Although it advertised the product as universal, the post helpfully included a list of firearms it could be used to load. That list consisted overwhelmingly of assault rifles, including the AR-15, AK-47, M16, AK-74, HK33, G36 and Steyr AUG. The main photo also showed the loader being used to fill a high-capacity magazine.
This is all despite EBay rules that forbid the sale of “parts and accessories for assault weapons” — a policy that a spokesperson said extends to “parts designed for assault weapons … even if they can also fit non-assault weapons” — as well as all high-capacity magazines and any firearm components that are banned in California.
After The Times brought the speed loader to EBay’s attention, it was taken down, along with eight other product listings that the company determined were in violation of its policies.
Three more listings for the exact same speed loader remain online, with 672 units sold among them. (These listings don’t specify compatibility with assault weapons but still show the tool being used with high-capacity magazines.)
Under California law, whether a given gun is an assault weapon depends on how it’s configured; the same rifle can be rendered legal or not with the simple switch of a grip, stock or other components. Determining whether a part or accessory is meant for assault weapons, therefore, is not straightforward.
In making that call, EBay’s spokesperson said that the platform weighs such factors as the “language used in the listing” and “how the manufacturers market the product.”
Yet amid a nationwide escalation in the debate over gun control after military-style semiautomatic rifles were used to kill a total of 35 people in Buffalo, N.Y., Uvalde, Texas and Tulsa, Okla., products as flagrant in their purpose as the speed loader continue to slip through.
For EBay, it’s not a new problem.
In 2019, following a similar string of mass shootings in Gilroy, Calif., El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, a Times investigation found items including assault rifle magazines, collapsible stocks and bayonets available for purchase on the site, sometimes in violation of platform policies.
Partially in response to The Times’ reporting, a group of Senate Democrats sent a letter to EBay’s then-chief executive urging him to more strongly police the sale of guns and gun accessories. EBay subsequently changed its rule from banning “products that mention capability with an assault weapon” to the current, more expansive prohibition on “parts and accessories for assault weapons.”
Yet almost three years later, the site still hosts numerous listings that appear to violate this stricture.
Some sellers are brazen about it.
One, the “AR-15 Super Slim Fixed Rear Sight — Black,” is currently featured on EBay’s landing page for “Hunting Scope Mounts & Accessories” as the site’s fourth-highest-rated product in the category.
Another, a Thordsen-brand “Featureless AR15 Rifle Stock,” had a starting bid of $79 and free pickup available in Redwood City. (It has since been removed.) According to the Thordsen listing for the same product, “featureless” gun parts modify assault weapons to be compliant with state laws, such as by replacing an adjustable stock with a fixed one. In 2019, EBay said that featureless parts were banned.
Other listings are more subtle.
Some don’t name a specific gun, only a category. A skull-shaped rubber loop that’s supposed to make it easier to swap out used magazines is dubbed the “AR Skull Tactical Mag Pull,” and multiple 3-D-printed couplers — an accessory that connects two different magazines together — include “AR,” “AK” or “M4” in their name. (The M4 is a shortened version of the M-16.)
A product called the “Lets Go Brandon AR magazine coupler” ships from Costa Mesa for just under $20. EBay’s rules require listings for firearm parts and accessories to specify the type of gun they fit, but the seller of the “Let’s Go Brandon” coupler appears to have avoided this requirement by listing the item in the category for comics and graphic novels. (Contacted by The Times, the seller said EBay’s system had auto-generated the erroneous category. He deleted the listing.) Other items apparently in violation of EBay’s firearm rules were listed under military surplus collectibles.
Two posts advertising package sets of AR sights, grips, slings and stands don’t specify AR-15 compatibility, either, but include photos of rifles that — given their removable magazines and pistol grips — would be illegal in California under the state’s assault weapons ban. (A federal judge struck down the ban in 2021 but it remains in force pending appellate review.) The Times asked EBay about one of these listings, and it was taken down. The second remains up.
Other listings substitute technical specs for gun model names. Many include the numbers .223 and 5.56, which represent the calibers of cartridges developed for use in the AR-15 and M-16. Mark Oliva, director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, told The Times in 2019 that “most people identify the .223 or 5.56 with an AR-15.” Another frequent number is 7.62, the standard diameter of AK-47 cartridges.
While such jargon may render listings semi-opaque to those unfamiliar with guns, descriptions of equivalent products on other e-commerce sites lay things out more explicitly.
An EBay listing for a 10-round 5.56 / .223 magazine manufactured by the company Adventure Line makes no reference to AR-15s or M16s. But on EveryGunPart.com, a thirty-round version of the same magazine is straightforwardly labeled an “Adventure Line M16/AR15 Magazine.”
A lot offering a 10-round 5.56 / .223 Colt magazine also doesn’t cite any specific guns, yet an almost identical product is specifically labeled as being for AR-15s on GunShowMags.com.
And although an Armaspec-brand extended magazine release advertises compatibility with 5.56, .223 and 7.62 cartridges on EBay, the equivalent listing on Armaspec’s own site says upfront that it’s “compatible with most AR-15 … receivers.” (EBay removed the Colt and Armaspec products when asked about them.)
Contacted via EBay message, the seller of the Adventure Line magazine, which has since been sold, said they believed the product was not in violation of the platform’s policies because the ammunition it holds is popular with hunters and sport shooters. The seller, who did not provide their name, disputed the characterization of firearms, including an AR-15 they own and use for target practice, as assault weapons. “ I can put a bunch of stuff on my rifles to make them look like an assault rifle, but they will never be an ‘assault rifle,’” they wrote. (Under California law, putting components such as a pistol grip or folding stock on an AR-15 with a removable magazine makes it an assault rifle.)
Elsewhere on the site, The Times found a 7.62 silencer front cap and a 5.56 suppressor end cap. Silencers and flash suppressors are specifically banned under EBay’s policy. EBay removed the front cap after The Times brought it to the company’s attention; the suppressor end cap has been sold.
As attempts by social media platforms to police extremist content and viral misinformation illustrate all too well, content moderation is a tricky thing to do at scale. EBay’s representative said that the company has already blocked more than 1 million listings in 2022 that violated its firearms and firearm accessories policy.
Some EBay merchants openly acknowledge trying to avoid detection.
One seller, offering .223 and 5.56x45 magazines, wrote in their listing: “You know what platform (rifles / pistol) these are for — EBay won’t let me use those words.”
An accompanying product photo was less subtle. The magazines, still in their original packaging, were clearly labeled “AR-15 Magazine.”
Someone else, putting a “custom pistol grip” up for auction, labeled the item an “enforcer type” grip “for the Chinese version of the gun designed by the famous Russian tanker whos [sic] name is not allowed on EBay” — seemingly a reference to the Type 56, a Chinese assault rifle modeled on the AK-47, and Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Soviet tank commander who developed the AK-47.
EBay didn’t answer a question about whether there’s a list of specific search terms that it screens for in the titles, bodies or photos of new listings, such as “AR-15” or “Kalashnikov.” Both of the above listings were removed after The Times flagged them for EBay.
“It is unconscionable that days after multiple mass shootings have torn communities and taken the lives of innocent children and Americans, assault rifles — and attachments to make them even more dangerous — continue to be available online and just one click away,” Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), said in an emailed statement.
It was Menendez who led the 2019 inquiry into EBay’s handling of assault weapon accessories that was in part prompted by The Times’ earlier reporting on this subject.
Three years later, Menendez says the platform still isn’t doing what it needs to be.
“By ignoring our previous requests to enforce their policies and by effectively failing once again to police their own platforms,” he said, “these companies continue to put people at risk.”
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