The Flemish Peace Institute is an independent
institute for peace research at the Flemish Parliament.

Q&A: What is the impact of the Internet on illicit weapon markets in Europe?


On May 15 the Flemish Peace Institute participated in a seminar on the challenges for the fight against illicit firearms trafficking, which was organized by the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) and the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (GRIP). Researcher Nils Duquet chaired a panel on the impact of new technologies and materials on the proliferation of small and light weapons and gave a presentation on the impact of the Internet on illicit firearms markets in Europe. In this Q&A he elaborates on the topic.

What is the impact of the internet on illicit firearms markets?

Traditionally, illicit firearms markets in Europe are closed markets with restricted access for people outside criminal networks. Access to illicit firearms markets has been strongly linked to criminal hierarchy and the criminal milieu to which the potential buyer belongs. Yet, the closed character of these markets has been eroding in recent years, partly due to the emergence of the Internet. This evolution has resulted in a growing availability of illicit firearms to lower segments of the criminal hierarchy, with as a consequence that it has become easier for petty criminals to acquire firearms, components, ammunition and even blueprints for 3D-printed firearms.

Is the illicit firearms market confined to the hidden and obscure parts of the internet?

Most attention in recent years has been given to the dark web, an anonymous part of the deep web, which is not indexed by search engines. The dark web can be an enabler for the trafficking of firearms. Recent research from RAND Europe and Project SAFTE, however, suggests that the magnitude of the scope and value of illicit arms trade on the dark web might often be overestimated. Weapons account for only about one percent of the total listings on the dark web vendor shops for example. While a growing range of weapons are available on the dark web, the volumes of potential supply remain rather low. Correspondingly, the offer on the dark web seems more suited to the needs of lower-level criminals, lone wolves, and individuals who are looking for firearms for other reasons. Moreover the degree of anonymity has its disadvantages: unreliable vendors and scamming are commonplace. Furthermore, law enforcement agencies are aware of the potential criminal activity on the dark web and some of them actively monitor these dark web markets.

What is the role of the surface web?

The surface web has had a considerable impact on illicit firearms markets. This is mainly due to the observation that, despite the existence of a European Firearms Directive, national firearms legislation can differ significantly between European member states. As a result, certain firearms and components that require an authorization in some countries, are sometimes readily available in other countries. It is clear that the Internet facilitates the exploitation of discrepancies and inconsistencies between different national firearms legislation, as a physical crossing of borders is no longer required. These weapons can be bought and paid for online and are then shipped in postal packages across Europe. An important recent loophole was the relative easy circulation of easy-to-convert deactivated firearms. These could be bought legally in most EU member states, as governments presumed that they could no longer be fired and did not pose a security risk. However, effective national procedures to render deactivated firearms inoperable have been lacking in many EU member states, resulting in easy reactivation. A similar problem can be observed with regard to blank-firing guns or so-called Flobert weapons. Registration is often not required and some of these weapons can be easily converted into lethal live-firing firearms.

How can policy-makers deal with these new challenges?

It is important to keep in mind that not every aspect of online arms trade is virtual. At some point there has to be a physical delivery of the goods. This remains a weak spot in an otherwise veiled transaction. Moreover, the virtual character of the market does not make traditional operational methods such as infiltration obsolete, but expertise and technical knowledge on weapons and illicit firearms markets in general and illicit online firearms trafficking in particular are needed. Conjointly, cooperation between member states is of paramount importance. The EU and its member states have to adopt a comprehensive and coordinated approach to tackle these problems. A solid and harmonized regulatory framework,  efficient operational cooperation and information exchange are vitally important. The Internet has enabled criminals to exploit the borders, policy-makers cannot fall behind.

Want to read more? Have a look at our publications on illegal arms trade in Europe.