If you know two things about the deep web (perhaps based on new knowledge from House of Cards), then you know that it’s full of (A) shady characters and (B) illegal stuff for sale. You can browse the online aisles for drugs, child porn or the services of hitmen, or even tool up to do the task yourself by buying guns from a darknet arms dealer.
In the past, hunters, survivalists and criminals had to source guns from legitimate dealers, obtain them through gun conventions, or seek out a connection of some kind on the street if they wanted to remain outside the legal system. Now the middleman has been almost entirely removed for that last group, who can avail of click-to-buy convenience for untraceable firearms.
Transactions take place at varying levels of anonymity. Facebook is unindexed but remains largely in the open; it boasts more than 1,500 pages, groups and networks by which traders can make firearm transactions. Facebook’s own rules do not allow sponsored ads to promote the sale of firearms or ammo, but that does not prevent the sale or advertising of guns from taking place on the platform.
HOW WE KNOW
We've been keeping an eye on gun sales via social media ever since we uncovered in April 2013 the practice of assault rifle giveaways on Facebook, a practice that Facebook subsequently clamped down on. Individual inter-personal transactions are nearly impossible to track and block at scale, but competitions and promotions like this were flagrantly in contravention of Facebook's T&Cs. Click the pic below to read that story.
Whole networks of gun enthusiasts have sprung up where people can easily post their contact and arsenal details and come to an agreement on who gets what and for how much.
While this sounds inherently illegal, it really isn’t; Allison Price, a spokesperson for the U.S. Justice Department, clarified to the Daily Beast: “There is no federal law prohibiting sales of firearms over the Internet, and the ready availability of firearms through social applications presents yet another avenue for unlicensed sellers to transfer guns anonymously and without background checks. This loophole underscores the need for a universal background check requirement, so we can keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and other persons prohibited from having them.”
As such, even Instagram is being used to sell guns. At any one time, thousands of posts are tagged with #GunsForSale.
But if you’re looking to stay way under the radar, the dark web is your place. We found chatter on a subreddit for dark web deals discussing the best place to buy guns. The links led us to The Armory, an online storefront for real-world weapons depot.
WHAT DOES .ONION MEAN?
You won't be able to view The Armory on a regular web browser. If you look at the URL, you'll see that it ends with .onion (instead of .com or .org, say). The Armory is a site accessible via TOR, a secure browser designed for maximum anonymity, which routes your connection through three shifting locations on the web, making it all but impossible to track the user at either end of the web transaction. TOR is free to download, but unaccustomed users should exercise extreme caution when navigating deep websites—malware and other security risks are widespread.
We approached The Armory with questions to see how they can possibly get away with it. Below is the complete, unedited and startlingly frank Q&A. The dealer describes how they hide guns inside power tools for shipment, and how Ireland is a surprisingly active seasonal market for firearms.
What’s business like?
Interesting, to say the least. It’s a better option for most of us than regular civilian life, as we know the trade and were “raised” with it, if you will, for enough time that we never really wanted to leave the Arms Trade once we got into it.
We don’t do much business face-to-face, so the unscrupulous characters you may expect from Hollywood are far and few in between. Most communicate via email or personal contacts. However we do have a few trusted contacts that border on “friendship” that we do trust and occasionally enjoy a face-to-face meeting for business.
Most of us don’t see much outside of work, although that is not to say we are withdrawn. This is simply a very busy business, and usually it’s a 50-plus-hour workweek for each member. We have eight people working in our shop, for reference. More working with transportation and acquisitions.
How has the dark web changed in the 13 years you have been in business?
Well, we only got into selling online around 2010 with an attempt at a website, but that failed. We used TOR for some time for emails and communication, but no sales until around 2011. We started on Black Market Reloaded (BMR) and Silkroad (SR) when they allowed weapons, using our site (RogueArms at the time, same name as our “Company”) for sales and using BMR/SR as escrow.
2011 to 2013 were somewhat stable, although our BTC banks did net us some very good profit—around a 2,500 percent increase—over the two years, and late 2013 saw the market fiasco. That’s when we started making our name more public, prior [to that] we never even advertised our site—current site, which has been up since some time in July 2013—or services.
To be honest, the last six months have brought more change than the entirety of our time on the darknet.
Is there a lot of competition in your line of business? Who are your competitors?
Yes and no. We are the only ones that deal nearly all products online. Sure, there are other onion services but most are either scams that won’t use escrow or [providers of] subpar weapons. There is Sterling Cooperate Services which has a TOR site, RUVA which has a TOR and a nonfunctional I2P site, but other than those two we don’t have any public competition.
As for outside the Internet, then yes we do. However we do not wage war, that’s for our clients to do. While it can become competitive when you have a client looking to two or more suppliers for bulk orders, it’s nothing we’d ever lose sleep over.
Not good for business if you are known for being violent towards competition.
Do only operate on the dark web? Do you have any related businesses on the surface web or brick and mortar?
The darknet is only around 10 percent of our sales. Most of our sales still comes from the Middle East, although we have had a large increase in Russian exports.
Generally sales are private contacts that have done prior business. Most range from $7,000 to $30,000. However we had several requests for darknet operations when we started a forum on SR1 (we think) for online sales so we gave it a try. The first time it failed miserably, the second time it was a huge success.
We have had a few customers use Bitcoins outside of the darknet, although this was a small order with a close contact that asked if he could “get rid” of the Bitcoins for a additional firearm, in which we were all too happy to accept.
What is your best selling item?
Pistol: Glock 17
Rifle: Soviet AK47 Gen3 for unique sales, Colt M4 series for Bulk
Shotgun: Remington Super Shorty. Out of two shotguns bought in the past three months, both have been the Super Shorty.
How do you ship these items? Are there restrictions to where you will ship?
Our favorite is power tools. Take the tool apart, mill out space for the firearm component, and seal it back up. If done carefully the item can even continue to operate.
We’ve used Drills, saws, other power tools, tanks, engines, computers, furniture, and even some items costing well over several thousand dollars.
The key is to find a item that has a similar density to the metal as to skew the X-ray taken in customs. Not a complete preventative measure, but helps.
All firearms are 100 percent free of gun oil for chemical detection systems (for explosive material), so the customer has to oil the firearm when received.
We’ve had reports that clients have “scratched” their guns getting them out of the decoy items, but to be honest we’d rather have a client with a scratched gun than a client without a gun at all.
We have a few locations we cannot ship, although the major locations are covered (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, South Korea, Australia, Ukraine temporarily).
Where are most of your customers from?
Our top locations are USA, Australia, United Kingdom, Ireland.
Only the USA is easy to ship to, the others cost well over $200 to have a single item mailed. Our largest non-shipping country (a country we don’t have a shipping location in) would be Norway.
Do you have any idea what kind of customers you have? Hunters? Guerrillas? Militias? Survivalists?
It could all be lies, but we assume our clients are telling the truth. Not much we can do, just like normal gun shop owners we can’t really tell the murderers from the customers.
Based on the shipping locations, personal details, and some stories we assume most are for self-defence with Private Security Forces being the largest for bulk.
Are there ebbs and flows of business depending on the time of the year? World conflicts?
Right now we’ve seen a large increase in Russian Arms trades. However, Ireland is the most interesting. It seems that there has been a steady rise and fall of activity. We never get any orders during the summer months for Ireland, but around 10 to 15 during the winter each year.
We assume it’s due to actions of the IRA but that region’s conflicts doesn’t really effect our sales. Generally the Summer (South of the Equator) seems to be busier, although recently we’ve had a large increase of sales online although that could be due to advertising.
How many sales do you do in an average month?
Online: 30 to 70 sales per month in the past, but now that most of the markets got shut down and many online customers scared away, we’ve been down to 10 to 40 sales per month.
Real world: 70 to 120 sales per month.
How has the fluctuation in Bitcoin value affected business?
For the best. We just use cold storage for Bitcoin profits made, and since we’ve been doing that for two years it has greatly increased our past profit.
Is there anyone you won’t sell to?
Quite a few. Here’s a list:
Abdullah Azzam Brigades
Abu Nidal Organization
Aden-Abyan Islamic Army
Akhil Bharat Nepali Ekta Samaj
Al Aqsa Foundation
Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades
Al Gama’a al-Islamiyya
Al Haramain Foundation
Al Qaeda in Iraq
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
All Tripura Tiger Force
Ansar al-Sharia (Tunisia)
Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna
Ansar Bait al-Maqdis
Armed Islamic Group of Algeria
Army of Islam
Babbar Khalsa International
Balochistan Liberation Army
Communist Party of India (Maoist)
Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist)
Communist Party of the Philippines/
New People’s Army
Communist Party of Turkey/Marxist–Leninist
Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei
Continuity Irish Republican Army
Cumann na mBan
East Turkestan Information Center
East Turkestan Islamic Movement
East Turkestan Liberation Organization
Egyptian Islamic Jihad
El Kaide Terör Örgütü Türkiye Yapılanması
Great Eastern Islamic Raiders’ Front
Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades
Harkat-al-Jihad al-Islami in Bangladesh
Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin
Hezbollah Military Wing
Hezbollah External Security Organisation
Holy Land Foundation
for Relief and Development
International Sikh Youth Federation
Irish National Liberation Army
Irish People’s Liberation Organisation
Islamic Jihad – Jamaat Mujahideen
Islamic Jihad Union
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
Jamiat al-Islah al-Idzhtimai
Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid
Kach and Kahane Chai
Kangleipak Communist Party
Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup
Khalistan Commando Force
Khalistan Zindabad Force
Kurdistan Democratic Party/North
Kurdistan Freedom Falcons
Kurdistan Workers’ Party
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
Libyan Islamic Fighting Group
Loyalist Volunteer Force
Manipur People’s Liberation Front
Maoist Communist Centre of India
Marxist–Leninist Communist Party
Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group
National Democratic Front of Bodoland
National Liberation Army
National Liberation Front of Tripura
Palestine Liberation Front
Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine
Party of Free Life of Kurdistan
People’s Congress of Ichkeria and Dagestan
People’s Liberation Army of Manipur
People’s Mujahedin of Iran
People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command
Provisional Irish Republican Army
Real Irish Republican Army
Red Hand Commando
Red Hand Defenders
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
Revolutionary Organization 17 November
Revolutionary Party of Kurdistan
Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front
The Saved Sect
Tevhid-Selam (Kudüs Ordusu)
Society of the Revival of Islamic Heritage
Stichting Al Aqsa
Students Islamic Movement of India
Supreme Military Majlis ul-Shura of the United Mujahideen Forces of Caucasus
Tamil Nadu Liberation Army
Tamil National Retrieval Troops
Ulster Defence Association
Ulster Volunteer Force
United Liberation Front of Assam
United National Liberation Front
United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia
Vanguards of Conquest
World Tamil Movement
World Uygur Youth Congress
This list is maintained by the list of U.S. Designated Terrorist Groups/Cells