There's an episode of the television sitcom Seinfeld where character Elaine goes on a shopping spree to purchase a form of birth-control that's being taken off the market. That phenomenon is a little like what's happening for gun owners who fear that the backlash after the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut will result in gun control legislation.
This week, news agencies are reporting that sales of guns and magazines have spiked. "Guns Out of Stock at Wal-Mart as Magazine Prices Surge," Bloomberg reported yesterday.
The news agency reports that prices for handgun magazines are surging on eBay, and semi-automatic rifles are sold out at many Wal-Mart stores. "On EBay Inc.'s auction website, shoppers have recently bid up gun magazines. The current bid for four Glock handgun magazines, ammunition for one of the guns used at Newtown, is $118.37 compared with $45 on the day before the shooting. The bid for seven Glock magazines hit $201 on Dec. 17 from $71.01 before the massacre," it reported.
If "Elaine" decided to go on a spree today for guns instead of sponges, she'd have many more options than when "The Sponge" episode of Seinfeld aired in 1995. The Internet offers some gun sites and plenty of advice. Search engines like Google Shopping help you find weapon retailers. And as the Bloomberg article points out, some retailers like Walmart let you check online for the availability of guns at their brick-and-mortar stores, where you must go to purchase them.
On Friday, New York City Mayor Bloomberg published the results of a national investigation into illegal online gun sales that found a "vast and largely unregulated market for illegal guns, with 62 percent of private sellers willing to commit a felony by selling firearms to people who likely could not pass a background check."
"The investigation probed 10 websites that had 25,000 guns available for purchase and investigators contacted 125 private online gun sellers located in 14 states. The investigation included sellers on Craigslist, which prohibits the sale of firearms in its site according to its posted policies."
As for eBay, the site has banned guns since former CEO Meg Whitman put the policy in place, though it does allow the sale of certain gun parts.
Another, earlier tragedy had caused eBay to restrict its policy. In July 2007, slightly more than three months after the tragedy at Virginia Tech that left 32 victims and the lone gunman dead, eBay announced that it would prohibit listings for firearm parts required for the firing of a gun. In announcing the ban on gun parts, eBay acknowledged that some items used in the Virginia Tech shooting had been purchased on its site.
However, in December 2011 (almost exactly one year ago), eBay loosened its Firearms, weapons, and knives policy. eBay continues to ban gun sales, but it now allows the sale of certain gun parts. While it allows the sale of magazine, they are restricted to those with a capacity to accept 10 rounds or less. eBay bans high-capacity magazines that can accept more than 10 rounds. Additionally, eBay does not permit sellers to post images of assault weapons or mention that an item is compatible with an assault weapon. Ammunition and replica firearms remain prohibited.
eBay told EcommerceBytes in June that eBay loosened the policy last year "to more closely align our policy with legal requirements and to give sellers opportunities to offer more products in the hunting category."
I asked eBay spokesperson Johnna Hoff today if eBay was considering changes to its policy, and she provided a statement reiterating that eBay does not allow the sale of firearms, live ammunition, ammunition components, or any parts and accessories used for assault weapons. The statement also said, "We are deeply saddened by the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut and our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. eBay is committed to maintaining a safe and trusted marketplace globally. We take this commitment very seriously and have established strict policies to ensure responsible use of our marketplace."
Another site that does allow the sale of guns, GunBroker.com, has over 1.8 million registered users and an average of 2.5 million unique monthly visitors. As its founder Steve Urvan told EcommerceBytes in 2008, gun sales are highly regulated. "By Federal Law, any gun you buy has to be shipped to a licensed gun dealer and you must go to that dealer's business in person, produce identification, fill out paperwork called a 4473 form, and pass a background check. The process is no different buying on GunBroker than it would be buying a gun at a gun shop. GunBroker's value-add is a huge selection of guns for sale, not the ability to buy illegally or circumvent the law." (I wasn't able to reach Urvan today before publishing this blog post.)
While one expects individuals and politicians to rally on one side or the other of a hot-button debate such as gun control, many heavyweights in Silicon Valley pounced on the issue, signing their names in an ad that ran in the New York Times in support of Demand A Plan, including venture capitalists, cofounders of sites like Foursquare and Twitter, authors and publishers and others.
Where the debate will take the country is uncertain, but it's clear that just as in every other commodity, supply-and-demand rules online just as it does in the offline world - and things that may be hard to find offline can usually be found online