CokerCustomDesign looked something like a normal shop on Etsy, offering things like Christmas tree ornaments and wooden name cards. But alongside those items were more unusual offerings: custom-engraved Magpul PMAGs, a high-capacity ammunition magazine meant to work with AR-15–style firearms—including one, listed for sale on Jan. 6, that featured the logo of the Three Percenters militia group. The Anti-Defamation League describes the Three Percenters as “anti-government extremists,” and their patches were spotted on some of the Capitol rioters.
The listing wasn’t an anomaly. Including CokerCustomDesign, The Markup found 17 shops on Etsy carrying either high-capacity magazines or couplers, which are used to bolt multiple magazines together.
If those firearm parts and accessories seem out of place on Etsy, a popular online marketplace for homemade goods, they should. While “militia” does not appear in Etsy’s House Rules, the platform prohibits selling things that “promote or endorse harmful misinformation” or “glorify” violence. Etsy’s “hate” policy links, as a resource for sellers, to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which identifies the Three Percenters as a component of the anti-government movement. Three Percenter content has been deemed to violate the policies of Facebook, Google, and Amazon.
And Etsy explicitly prohibits guns, firearm parts, and “accessories for assault-style weapons.” Such magazines are also banned in multiple jurisdictions across the United States.
For all but two stores, reviews and sale records indicated that people have been purchasing ammunition magazines through Etsy. And after The Markup visited the page of a shop that carried a high-capacity magazine, Etsy began recommending products and other shops that carried gun parts and accessories to the reporter’s account.
It isn’t clear, however, if any of the magazines were shipped to buyers in states with bans. Etsy declined to comment on where the sold magazines were shipped.
Report Deeply and Fix Things
In a statement to The Markup, Jessica Doyle, an Etsy VP, said, “We have removed each of the listings in question because they violate our prohibited items policy including weapons and violent items.”
When The Markup checked the listings, those for ammunition magazines had been removed, but listings for magazine couplers remained active. While some stores had disappeared, others remained active, and The Markup found some were still offering high-capacity magazines. Etsy declined to comment on whether selling magazine couplers violates its policies. The firearms accessories manufacturer Magpul Industries lists magazine couplers as an accessory on its website.
The Markup found the listings weeks after Etsy published a blog post condemning the Capitol riots and promising to crack down on items that promote hate or violence. In the post, CEO Josh Silverman wrote, “It’s more important than ever that we be vigilant and do our part to keep our marketplace and community safe.”
Only about half of the magazine listings The Markup found included a notice in the product description about not selling to states with bans.
Etsy’s weapons policy states that it is “each seller’s responsibility to follow all applicable laws regarding the sale of weapons.”
“The availability of these products online by irresponsible sellers makes it a lot harder for the states that have passed laws banning magazines to ensure that those laws are followed correctly,” said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel and policy director at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Pie Plates, Bracelets, and Engraved Mags
The average shopper is more likely to associate Etsy with things like handmade thank-you cards, cute baby costumes, or bespoke jewelry. (Actors Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis made headlines after buying their engagement rings for $190 on the site.) The company’s mission is to “Keep Commerce Human.”
And indeed many of the shops we found selling gun parts also carried an array of more traditional Etsy products.
The shop for TESBeamsandParticles, for instance, mostly consisted of coffee shop chain–themed costumes for toddlers and adults. But it also offered a thirty-round Magpul magazine emblazoned with a red profile of former president Donald Trump and an American flag.
“Trump supporter want to keep America Great? Then you need this engraved PMAG! Show off your support!” read the product description.
The owner of TESBeamsandParticles told The Markup that they weren’t aware of Etsy’s Weapons Policy, but that “magazines are not weapons.” The listing was later taken down by Etsy for violating its prohibited items policy.
Etsy shop crystaleffects sells a variety of items, including customized pie plates and handmade cards with phrases like “Life is a beautiful thing” and “There’s always time for tea” in a swirling, cursive font. It also lists engraved “F-Your Feelings” 30-round magazines, which involve a stick figure humping the text “YOUR FEELINGS.”
Crystaleffects did not respond to The Markup’s request for comment. Etsy removed magazine listings from the shop, including the “F-Your Feelings” one.
One seller appeared to have moved on from other offerings entirely in favor of customized magazines. Before listing a 30-round magazine adorned with a gold vinyl decal, seller AandMBeads’ wares were limited to necklaces and bracelets made out of semi-precious gemstone beads. When The Markup examined the shop in late January, the magazine was the only active item for sale.
AandMBeads did not respond to our request for comment. The magazine listing disappeared from the shop shortly after we reached out.
We found multiple listings for magazines engraved with Trump-related imagery. One listing depicted Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democractic presidential nominee, behind bars.
Other sellers didn’t offer actual magazines, but couplers meant to join multiple magazines together to speed up the reload process.
Enforcement or Reinforcement?
Once The Markup began searching Etsy for gun parts, the site’s recommendation features started suggesting them to us. Magazines popped up in a section entitled “Similar to recently viewed” that showed up on certain pages of the site. Advertisements for other magazines for sale on Etsy appeared at the bottom of some listings.
And when later opening Etsy’s homepage, The Markup was greeted with a prominent list of “Suggested searches” that included terms like “ar 15 magazine,” “30 round magazine,” and “assault rifle magazine.” Clicking them churned up more listings for magazines.
Etsy charges 20 cents each time a seller adds or renews a listing. It also takes a 5 percent transaction fee every time a product is sold. As the company summed up in its 2020 proxy statement, “We make money when our sellers make money.”
CokerCustomDesign’s public sales page indicated that it sold seven customized magazines, making it by far the shop’s most popular offering. One of the sold magazines was embellished with the Three Percenter logo.
CokeCustomDesign did not respond to The Markup’s request for comment. After we referred the listing to Etsy, the company removed it for violating its prohibited items policy.
The Struggle to Police Platforms
Etsy is not the only platform that has struggled to enforce its own rules.
In January, The Markup reported that Google and Facebook accepted ads for Three Percenter merchandise despite policies banning “militia content.” At the time, The Markup also found Three Percenter products on Amazon, which Amazon spokesperson Cecilia Fan said violated the company’s “offensive and controversial materials” restrictions. (The company removed the products after The Markup reached out.)
Before then, The Markup found Amazon failed to enforce its own policies, allowing listings for AR-15 gun parts and accessories as well as performance enhancing injectable drugs to appear on the platform.
“If you make it very easy for people to sign up and sell things, you of course are going to have bad actors who take advantage of that,” said Natasha Tusikov, an assistant professor of criminology at York University in Toronto and the author of “Chokepoints: Global Private Regulation on the Internet.”
“So part of the problem is the very nature of the way these platforms have set themselves up,” she said.
Tusikov said major ecommerce players like Amazon have spent massive amounts of money on enforcement efforts. But despite mind-boggling amounts of resources, Amazon and other tech giants have still struggled to enforce their own policies. Etsy, meanwhile, is a relatively small player in the ecommerce world.
For context, Amazon has said that it has invested more than $500 million to prevent fraud and abuse.
Five hundred million dollars is more than half of Etsy’s total 2019 revenue. Etsy publishes a yearly update about the enforcement actions the company has taken. In its 2019 annual transparency report, Etsy said it permanently closed 36,420 accounts that violated either their handmade or prohibited content policies. That year, they had 2.5 million active sellers.
But at any sized platform, bad actors are inevitable, Tusikov said. “No one wants to spend enforcement dollars when they don’t have to,” she said. “But when the rules are being repeatedly violated, and they’re not taking action, you have to ask why.”