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Online Gun Sellers Skirt Scrutiny, But Stricter Rules May Be Coming

Paige Pfleger
William Wood holds up one of his guns in his kitchen. He has sold firearms online for years.

William Wood answers the door to his suburban Columbus home with a Glock 19 on his hip. His two toddler-aged children, Daisey and Wesley, peak out from behind his legs.  

Cartoons are playing on the TV as Wood shows me his gun collection in the living room. He pulls loaded gun magazines off a closet shelf, buried underneath Monopoly and Candy Land.

"This camo one here shoots a .300 Blackout, this is a standard 5.56 round," Wood says. "The kid in Dayton, he used that, unfortunately."

Wood lays the guns down on the kitchen table and pulls up a chair in front of the window fan. It’s hot, and an army green bandana catches the sweat on his forehead. His brown hair sticks up in spikes.

I contacted Wood on Facebook Marketplace, where he was selling a Ruger gun. He’s been selling guns on Facebook and other platforms for 10 years.

"They don’t allow gun sales anymore on Facebook, so we’ve had to get a little creative when it comes trying to advertise something like that," he says.

By creative, he means posting pictures of gun cases instead of the actual firearms. Facebook Marketplace is littered with posts like that in the Central Ohio area.

"We’ve had to make fake names and fake profiles and other stuff like that, to keep ahead of this," he says. "And I feel that we shouldn’t have to. It’s the same thing as selling a bicycle or a used car. A used car could be more dangerous than a gun can be."

Several of William Wood's guns on his kitchen table in suburban Columbus.
Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
Several of William Wood's guns on his kitchen table in suburban Columbus.

It’s not illegal to sell guns on Facebook, but the site technically prohibits posts that offer to sell, gift or transfer guns, gun parts or ammunition.

"If we catch someone selling guns, we take immediate action," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.

Under Ohio law, private gun sales are allowed – though they are largely unregulated.

Wood says he usually checks a person’s drivers license, and then goes with his gut.

"Of course I wouldn’t sell to like, the thuggish types," he says. "You can tell this guy’s got face tattoos, and he’s probably been to prison a couple of times, I wouldn’t consciously sell to somebody like that."

A judgement call with no other follow up is legal in Ohio, which – like most states – does not require a background check for private gun sales.

The group Ohioans for Gun Safety wants to change that.

"Right now if you purchase a gun at a sporting goods store, you go through a background check with a licensed firearms dealer," says group spokesman Dennis Willard. "But if you have a private sale between two individuals, then there’s not a background check. We’re closing that loophole."

A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 90% of Ohioans, including 87% of gun owners, support background checks.

"This is a very popular idea," Willard says.

However, Columbus lawyer Derek DeBrosse – who advertises as "The Gun Lawyer" – says there are logistical issues with background checks for private sales.

Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
Lawyer Derek DeBrosse goes by 'The Gun Lawyer' online.

"So if I saved up my money for a year to buy a very cheap pistol for self-defense because someone is threatening my life, and the person selling it to me has to run a background check, who is going to pay for the background check?" Debrosse asks. "It’s a constitutional right that I want to invoke. Is the government going to pay for that?"

DeBrosse points out that background checks are required in some private sales, like those that occur across state lines. That’s what happened in the case of the Dayton shooter.

"The issue is are you doing it for business purposes. That violates federal law," DeBrosse says. "And it violates Ohio law if I’m doing it where the person buying it meets certain criteria – they’re a violent felon, a drug related felon, they're underage, whatever it might be."

DeBrosse encourages his clients to fill out a firearms bill of sale for these types of transactions. That way if a buyer is lying about being authorized to buy a firearm in the state or the gun is used in a crime, the seller won't be held liable. 

"Seller disclaims all liability for consequential and/or incidental damages and any other losses arising from the use of said firearm," the form reads.

William Wood and his son, Wesley at their kitchen table.
Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
William Wood and his son, Wesley at their kitchen table.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Wood says he’s vehemently opposed to background checks for private sales. Wesley sits next to him, shoveling handfuls of cheese puffs into his mouth.

"This particular issue, it would kill the entire used gun industry," Wood says. "It would not at all help the gun violence issue we have. It would limit the sales and acquisition for regular people like myself."

He argues more obstacles – from the government or from sites like Facebook – would impede his constitutional right to bear arms.

But in the wake of the mass shooting in Dayton, politicians and groups like Ohioans For Gun Safety think those obstacles are worth it.

What do you want to know about guns in Ohio? Submit your questions below and we may investigate for a future story.


Paige Pfleger is a former reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.