Image credit: @xraydeltaone.
After the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut coincided with a similar but far less deadly school attack in Henan province, I wrote that this was evidence that gun control works. China has some of the strictest controls on guns in the world, but just because something is illegal doesn’t mean it’s impossible, especially when the internet is involved. Tech in Asia’s Charlie Custer (previously) set out to see how hard it is to buy guns online.
I didn’t get any response at all from the supposed gun sellers I found via Baidu, but the guy behind QiangAK did get back to me, and informed me that guns like the one pictured above are both real and very much for sale. As he pointed out, they’re marked as “military-use” guns, but I can’t imagine the Chinese military really buys its weapons from this site, or that it encourages officers to buy extra weapons on the side. Moreover, he didn’t seem to care whether or not I was in the military — he was just pointing out that all the guns marked “military use” were real guns, as opposed to airsoft guns. Not wanting to actually commit any crimes, I didn’t attempt to buy any guns, but it certainly felt like I could have.
When I began research for this post, I was imagining it as a piece that would debunk the idea that guns are easy to buy online in China. But my experience seems to indicate that it really is pretty easy to find guns to buy. If a non-native Chinese speaker who knows nothing about guns like me was able to find all of this stuff in just a few hours, it’s hard to imagine Chinese people having much trouble with it.
Charlie points out that he didn’t actually go through with the sale, so for all we know, QiangAK might have been an undercover cop waiting to arrest him the moment money changed hands.
Charlie’s search for guns took place on the open internet (well, the Chinese internet at least). I took to the so called ‘dark web’ to see if I’d have more luck finding people with guns for sale.
For those unfamiliar with the ‘dark web’, Gizmodo describes the (now defunct) Armory like so:
The Armory began as an offshoot of The Silk Road, notable as the Internet’s foremost open drug bazaar, where anything from heroin and meth to Vicodin and pot can be picked out and purchased like a criminal Amazon.com. It’s virtually impossible to trace, and entirely anonymous. But apparently guns were a little too hot for The Silk Road’s admins, who broke the site off from the main narcotics carnival. Now guns, ammo, explosives, and more have their own shadowy home online, far from the piles of Dutch coke and American meth. But the same rules apply: with nothing more than money and a little online savoir faire, you can buy extremely powerful, deadly weapons—Glocks, Berettas, PPKs, AK-47s, Bushmaster rifles, even a grenade—in secret, shipped anywhere in the world.
The Armory wants to make itself hard to access (for obvious reasons that have to do with not going to prison), so it’s not as easy as just firing up any old website. In fact, it’s not really on the web in any traditional sense. To get to The Armory, you need to deploy a free piece of software called TOR. Originally (and ironically) developed by the Navy, it’s become the anonymizing software par excellence among criminals, hackers, schemers, and the otherwise paranoid. TOR routes and reroutes your connection to the Internet through a sprawling maze of encrypted nodes around the world, making it a herculean feat to find out who’s who. The Armory’s URL—ayjkg6ombrsahbx2.onion—reflects that, a garbled string of letters and numbers deliberately impossible to memorize. Once you’re actually signed in, you then have to turn to Bitcoins as mandatory currency, a further exercise in computer secrecy and complexity in itself. This ain’t exactly walking into a gun show and walking out with a pistol.
The Armory may be gone, but other anonymous gun markets still exist. Guns are disassembled and shipped in multiple packages in order to get through customs, the purchaser can then reassemble the weapon themselves (assuming they can follow the instructions). Payment is anonymised through the use of Bitcoins, an untraceable online currency.
So how much would it cost to buy a handgun online and have it shipped to China? One dealer (Arms Depot) quotes a price of $495.95 for a Beretta PX4 D-Type (I have no knowledge of guns, the Beretta was simply the highest rated handgun for sale). Shipping to China in multiple packages would take between 14-20 days, according to the dealer’s online guidelines. [Note: Obviously I did not actually order a gun, I’m happy staying out of jail thanks.]
While you’d have to be either seriously brave or stupid to buy guns through the dealers Charlie managed to find operating in the open, there are far less risks inherent in buying through TOR (though obviously it still isn’t entirely safe, purchasers could easily get ripped off, and there’s no guarantee that shipping parts of weapons instead of the assembled gun won’t end up with a knock on the door from the PSB).
As Gizmodo concluded after their investigation into the Armory:
If even a single gun is shipped to a single person, we’re living in a society in which things that kill people can be moved around the world with zero accountability. And then there might be the guy whose dream of a heavily armed third world coup d’état is more than just an experiment.