Gun Sellers Are Advertising on Instagram and Directing Customers to Encrypted Chat Apps

A leaked Facebook document gives more detail on the type of firearm parts that the social network does not allow people to sell peer-to-peer.
A gun and Instagram
Image: Shutterstock / Composition: Jason Koebler

This piece is part of an ongoing Motherboard series on Facebook's content moderation strategies. You can read the rest of the coverage here.

Users on Instagram are advertising guns for sale despite the social network banning trade of weapons between individuals since 2016, according to a review of Instagram accounts.

Some Instagram accounts make clear in their bios and posts that they are interested in selling guns, but direct users away from the app and instead encourage them to use more secure communication methods to carry out a transaction. Motherboard has also obtained an internal document from Facebook, which owns Instagram, giving a more detailed understanding of what specific firearms related items it bans.


The accounts show that while a social media network may have a clear policy on the ban of a certain type of content, enforcement is often a separate issue, and one that may still linger somewhat even after a policy switch.

“Are you interested?” one Instagram gun seller told Motherboard on the privacy-focused messaging app Wickr after Motherboard found their advert on Instagram.

After steady criticism for allowing peer-to-peer firearms sales, Facebook banned gun sales between individuals on its own platform and Instagram in 2016.

“The purchase, sale or trade of firearms, ammunition and explosives between private individuals isn't allowed on Facebook,” Facebook’s Help Center reads. Legitimate firearm shops and online stores are allowed to sell guns on Facebook as long as the law is followed, Facebook’s post adds.

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The leaked Facebook document, used to train the network’s content moderators, says that firearm parts such as stocks, barrels, cylinders, a grip, trigger, or magazine with ammunition are all violating if sold peer-to-peer. BB, airsoft, and flare guns are also banned from-peer to-peer sale. As Facebook previously announced, users selling or providing access to 3D printed guns or instructions always violate the site’s policies and should be deleted, the document emphasises. Facebook said similar policies apply to Instagram as well.


One Instagram account Motherboard found, which claimed to be selling guns, tells prospective clients not to direct message the Instagram account itself, but to contact them on WhatsApp, Snapchat, or the privacy-focused app Wickr. A second user on Instagram claiming to sell weapons also directed users to WhatsApp and Wickr.


A section of the Facebook document obtained by Motherboard, showing which firearms parts are banned by the network. Image: Motherboard

Once Motherboard added the first user on Wickr, their display picture also indicated they were advertising drugs for sale, with images of Xanax, cannabis, and other unidentified pills. Wickr has become increasingly popular with drug dealers.

For legal reasons, Motherboard did not attempt to purchase a weapon from either of the sellers.

Regardless, these accounts violate the terms of use of Facebook. Neither of these accounts appear to represent legitimate gun stores. When Motherboard provided a Facebook spokesperson with links to the two Instagram accounts for the purposes of allowing enough context for the company to give an accurate statement, the accounts were taken offline shortly after.

“We don’t allow the sale of firearms between private individuals on Facebook and Instagram—this includes 3D printed firearms or materials on how to manufacture them. Our teams work to identify and remove this content wherever they find it. Motherboard recently alerted us to a handful of accounts which breached these policies—these have now been removed,” a Facebook and Instagram spokesperson told Motherboard in an email.

According to leaked Facebook documents previously obtained by Motherboard, Instagram may disable an account if two or more parts of the profile are violating the site’s policies. These include the account’s username, bio, or content. The network may also disable an account if over 30 percent of its images or videos are violating its policies, the documents adds. If the account is devoid of any actual media, Instagram may then shut down the account if only one element of the account is violating, the documents add.

In the case of these accounts, however, two elements already signal the account likely should be banned: in both cases the username contains explicit mention of the trade of firearms, as does the profile bio. The second account includes several images of weapons as well as the likely violating bio and profile.

Facebook said it removes content when users report it to the company, and that it also launched methods of proactively identifying content that violates the site’s policies for drugs and guns in November 2018.

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