Guns, the dark web, and Europe

ALEXANDER HEINL

A member of the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) holds up a gun taken into evidence, in Wiesbaden, Germany, 29 February 2016.

Guns, the dark web, and Europe


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After a string of terrorist attacks throughout Europe, the European Union has taken steps to bolster its regulations under the firearms directive. This, coupled with the decline of the ISIS in Syria and Iraq, served to reduce the number of terrorist attacks carried out in the EU.

Brussels is, however, continuing to further its levels of internet connectivity as much of the world fails to adequately address the rise of new kinds of terrorists and forms of extremism, there may be more fertile ground for radicalism to thrive and wreak havoc.

Access to firearms within the European Union has traditionally been dependent on having links to criminal groups and black market gun sales. Access to markets on the dark web has, however, changed this.

What is the dark web?

Accessible via special browsers, the dark web’s content is not indexed on mainstream search engines and is therefore out of the reach of most casual internet browsers. In addition to this, URLs to these sites are purposefully scrambled, producing impossible to remember names that look as though they were created by smashing a keyboard. As a result, the dark web is often known as a breeding ground for illegal activity to flourish, whether it be weapons, drugs, illegal types of pornography or usernames and passwords that are used to hack accounts.

Though this isn’t the only type of content available on the dark web, it is common. Researchers at King’s College estimated that 57% of dark web sites host illegal content. On the upside, less than 1% of total transactions on the dark web are used to buy weapons, but the dark web remains a breeding ground for potentially dangerous criminals and terrorists.

Weapons sales represent 42% of listings on the dark web, according to data from the RAND Corporation. Estimates put sales of these guns at 100 sold each month.

Cracking down on dark web weapons trading

In the wake of terrorist violence, the European Union introduced gun laws that were meant to close loopholes as well as organise specific task forces with the intent of curbing dark web gun sales. But despite these particular regulations and overall consistency in regulation across the EU, the lack of a global framework to crack down on illicit arms sales through internet portals poses serious problems for law enforcement officials and the world’s intelligence services.

For the Americans, the country’s problem with lax gun laws in one area that undermines the effectiveness of strict gun control. In Chicago, despite strict gun ownership laws, has a high rate of gun violence due to relaxed gun laws in other areas of the country. This problem is simply magnified onto a larger scale when looking at the dark web as the minimal, or otherwise lacking, gun legislation of other countries allows vendors from those countries to sell weapons to nations with more thorough laws and harsher penalties which, unsurprisingly, leads to 60% of all global dark web gun sales originating in the United States.

An American vendor can sell weapons in Europe by breaking the firearms down into pieces and mailing them in different packages, disguised in other things, to be put back together by the recipient. The shooter in the 2016 Munich shopping mall attack that left 36 dead was thought to have obtained his weapon in this fashion from the dark web.

There are promising signs that the international community is taking note of the emerging threat. At the beginning of the year, a coordinated effort was made by the US, Canada, and the EU to stop the operations of several dark web weapons sellers and seize illegal property and assets.

Law enforcement officials made “61 arrests and shut down 50 dark web accounts used for illegal activity and seized 299.5 kg of drugs, 51 firearms, and over €6.2 million in cryptocurrency, cash, and gold.

By dispelling the myth of the dark web’s supposed anonymity, actions such as these have the potential to scare potential buyers and sellers away. But much is still relatively unknown about the dark web, and there is still work to be done to combat the threat of online black market gun sales.

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