Questions arise about KSL's booming online gun market
In a state with some of the least-restrictive gun laws in the nation, running a wide-open arms market appears to be a booming business niche for KSL.
KSL.com's free classified advertising site, now also the classified ads site for the Deseret News, has been wildly successful in general, even outdoing Craigslist.com, something no other local online classifieds site can boast about.
But it's in firearms sales that KSL.com really shines, with about 1,000 rifles, 1,000 handguns and 300 shotguns listed every day. That's in contrast to Craigslist, which banned firearms sales several years ago.
Of course, that lively gun marketplace is good or evil, depending on your point of view.
Gun users are delighted to be able to browse, haggle over and buy firearms from their neighbors without the red tape of federal background checks. And Utahns facing financial difficulties know they can quickly convert their firearms into cash.
But gun-control activists find it troubling that one of the state's largest media groups, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, operates a gun market that through legal, yet unregulated sales, helps traffic a vast number of handguns and large-capacity, rapid-fire rifles.
"It depends on how you feel about the proliferation of military-style, self-reloading firearms," says Steven Gunn of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah. "KSL is doing a disservice to our community by facilitating the sale of these firearms. It's a bad idea. They have a destabilizing effect on society."
The debate has prompted Deseret Digital Media, which operates KSL.com and deseretnews.com, to reconsider its policy regarding firearms sales.
Liability for gun crimes? •Federally licensed gun dealers, who also use KSL classifieds, require buyers to answer more than a dozen questions related to immigration status, mental illness and drug or domestic-violence convictions. The dealer then is required to follow up with a call to the Utah Bureau of Criminal Information for a criminal background check.
KSL.com ran a pop-up survey on its gun classifieds section last month, asking users if the site should ban firearm ads. Site officials have also been meeting with gun-rights activists, licensed gun dealers and agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to get feedback on a possible ban on gun ads posted by unlicensed individuals, said Russell Banz, vice president of products for Deseret Digital Media.
"KSL was concerned about their facilitating transfers of firearms at least the improper transfer of firearms and their potential facilitation of it," says Clark Aposhian, a pro-gun lobbyist with the Utah Shooting Sports Council, who attended one of the meetings.
Aposhian says he and Brent Tenney, of the Shooting Sports Council, met with Brett Atkinson, the website's general manager, and two KSL.com employees.
"I speculate that their legal department had a question: 'Are we liable if someone buys a gun and does something illegal with it?' " Aposhian says.
But Banz says the motivation for the survey is simply to make KSL.com a "better product."
"We just want to get input from the community and the gun-rights people and just do what is best for the community," Banz says.
Aposhian guesses the poll, which was only seen when visitors shopped for guns, came out heavily in favor of continuing gun sales.
"The gun people always win these polls," he says. "We've got a good network, and many gun owners are activists."
Banz, who wasn't aware of whether KSL contacted any gun-control groups, says a decision will be made on whether to continue the gun ads in the next few weeks. Gunn said his group had no idea a ban was being considered by KSL until a Tribune reporter called him.
For decades, The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News allowed firearms ads in newspaper classifieds, and MediaOne of Utah, which handles print advertising sales for both papers, allows the sale of guns in its print classifieds. But MediaOne CEO Brent Low says the policy was updated this week with this: "We do not accept silencers, automatic weapons or machine guns. We follow state law."
Kaango.com, which manages MediaOne's online classifieds on the sltrib.com site, prohibits firearms ads except "recreational airguns."
Utah's arms bazaar •On any given day, more than 5,000 items are offered for sale at KSL.com. In addition to rifles, handguns and shotguns, the classified postings include listings for gun parts, magazines, ammunition and bullets, brass casings and equipment to reload ammunition.
Concern often arises when people learn that buying and selling firearms between private parties doesn't require the stringent background check or even proof of identity mandated by law at a gun store, Aposhian says.
"Person-to-person sales are perfectly legal," he says. "There are restrictions on age, intent and location [the buyer and seller have to be residents of the state and not felons]. You can't sell a firearm to someone if you know they intend to use it with criminal intent."
Aposhian argues the state hasn't experienced a "pattern of violence or crime" related to KSL.com's gun sales, even if restrictions aren't regularly applied to private sales. The DeseretNews, however, reported in March that police traced a weapon used in a drug-related crime back to aSouthern Utah man who had sold it online. (The newspaper didn't specify whether it was through KSL.com. At the time of the report, deseretnews.com still published online classifieds through MediaOne.)
Gunn fears KSL's classifieds can be used by criminals to circumvent gun restrictions. "This is part of a bigger problem that guns can be sold without doing a background check on the person who is buying the gun," he says. "It is too easy to get a firearm in our society without a background check."
Gun owners told KSL.com that dropping gun ads for private, unlicensed sellers would be inconvenient, while sending the message that gun ownership was illegal or immoral by putting it in the same banned category as ads for pornography and prostitution.
"We explained we would be disappointed severely," Aposhian says. "It could be deemed by gun owners to be a political statement on KSL's part. We are very tired as gun owners of being sent to the back of the bus."
Gunn, a lawyer with the Salt Lake firm Ray Quinney & Nebeker, acknowledges that KSL.com is unlikely to face legal action for its gun classifieds.
"My instinct is that KSL would not have liability because a gun is bought by someone who saw it in their classifieds. KSL doesn't have an obligation to screen purchasers of products on KSL."
Gunn would like to see KSL.com restrict private classifieds to sporting and target guns, while banning military style semi-automatic weapons and large-caliber sniper rifles.
But he isn't optimistic that will happen in Utah, where lawmakers recently christened the Colt 1911 semi-automatic military pistol as its state gun.
"The gun lobby is strong, and businesses that take a stand against firearms activists do so at their own peril," Gunn says.
Gunn sees irony in KSL's parent Deseret Media Companies's new mission statement pledging to bring 'light and knowledge' to the community. "I guess there's light in a muzzle flash," he says.
KSL classified's firearms market
Private gun sales
Person-to-person guns sales are legal but require some responsibility.
Consider selling firearms on consignment through a licensed dealer, such as a gun store. It will require a small fee, but the dealer will take care of the background check and paperwork, and handle the face-to-face transaction.
If you sell a firearm yourself, ask the buyer to show you a Utah concealed weapon permit, which proves the buyer has passed a background check.
If the buyer doesn't have a concealed-carry permit, ask for a driver license to confirm age and Utah residence.
Create a bill of sale that specifies when the transaction took place. That will come in handy if the gun is used in a crime.