Northeastern researchers team up with PayPal to tackle illegal firearm transactions

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PayPal is funding an initiative that will bring together a team of researchers from Northeastern to examine how firearms are illegally trafficked on the company’s platforms, using information from PayPal’s databases about firearm sales and types of payments.

The company is giving the research team, led by Northeastern professor Anthony Braga, access to its databases, with the goal of determining how firearms are bought and sold on the black market, and what types of payment methods are used to finance them. The team will include law enforcement groups, as well as policymakers, and researchers from the Center on Crime and Community Resilience at Northeastern (directed by Braga), the University of Chicago Crime Lab, and the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis.

Anthony Braga is Elmer H.V. and Eileen M. Brooks Distinguished Professor of criminal justice and director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“By undertaking this research, we hope to establish a new area of study that could have major policy implications: how illegally sourced guns are financed,” says Braga, whose research focuses on firearm-related violence and reducing illegal access to firearms. “This is a subject where researchers and policymakers understand very little, and one that could provide many effective strategies for blocking the sale of illegally sourced guns if better understood.”

The research project will investigate prices paid for illegally acquired firearms, and how these transfers were financed, says Braga, Elmer H.V. and Eileen M. Brooks Distinguished Professor of criminal justice. 

The study will seek to determine whether the transfer was financed via cash, a credit or debit card, trade, an online or mobile payment system (such as PayPal, Venmo, or cryptocurrencies), or some other mechanism. 

The researchers will also consider how internet sales via the surface, deep, and dark web facilitate illegal firearm transfers, the acquisition of illegal accessories—such as bump stocks and auto sears—and the manufacture of ghost guns, silencers, and other illicit products.

PayPal’s president and chief executive officer, Dan Schulman, says that by joining the collaboration, the company will have an opportunity to invest in solutions to the problem of illegal firearm transactions. PayPal, which is an electronic commerce company that facilitates payments, has banned firearms sales on all of its platforms.

“We are working to combat illegal gun trafficking, which will help to reduce and eliminate firearm-related violence,” says Schulman. “All of us at PayPal are proud of the work we do with law enforcement officials around the world to assist in efforts to identify and stop illegal activity from occurring. This research is an extension of these efforts, and will help law enforcement and all payment platforms to better understand and address the issue of illegal firearms trafficking.”

Braga says that all too often, firearms fall into the wrong hands. The illegal acquisition of firearms by people who are most likely to perpetrate serious violence involving a firearm is a “significant problem” in the U.S., he says. In 2018 alone, he says, there were more than 10,000 murders in the U.S. involving a firearm.

“I am very concerned about the great harm generated by criminal misuse of firearms,” he says. “Beyond the tragic loss of life and the long-lasting trauma to the victims’ loved ones, each murder costs some $8.6 million (according to RAND). If we could reduce criminal access to guns, it could produce large benefits to society.”

According to Braga, while firearms used in crimes usually originate from a legal supply chain of manufacture (or import), distribution, and retail sale, there are two major pathways through which criminals acquire firearms: theft and illegal diversions from legitimate firearms commerce. Traffickers who divert firearms include scofflaw licensed dealers, unlicensed sellers illegally engaged in the business of selling firearms, and straw purchasers who are willing to buy firearms for prohibited individuals, such as previously convicted felons.

“It is complicated, because there are many channels through which criminals can acquire guns and a diverse set of ways to pay for guns,” Braga says. “The rapid growth in new technologies that facilitate the selling and paying for products further complicates our understanding of how these illegal markets work.”

Survey research suggests that roughly 70 percent of the transactions are through social connections, such as friends and family, or street sources, such as drug dealers, brokers who sell firearms, and gangs, Braga says. He says that traffickers play a large part in these illegal transactions. While research has tended to highlight the broad mechanisms that offenders use to pay for firearms such as money paid, trades, and loans and rentals, not much is known about how criminals pay for their illegal firearms when there is a cash transfer, says Braga.

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