The 'dark web' is playing a growing role in the trade in firearms, ammunition and explosives, says the first study of the size and scope of the illegal arms trade on the dark web.

“Terrorists and criminals can conduct illegal transactions protected by the veil of anonymity offered by the dark web, from the safety of their homes, and without requiring any prior connections to suppliers,” says Dr Giacomo Persi Paoli.

Findings show that the majority of firearms available on the dark web (60%) come from the US but that Europe represents the largest market for dark web firearms. Overall, the dark web is increasing the availability of more recent and powerful firearms for the same, or lower, price than would be available on the street or the black market.

Although the arms trade on the dark web is very small compared to the legal trade of arms worldwide, or even compared to the offline black market, the dark web’s potential to anonymously arm criminals, as well as vulnerable and fixated individuals, is of considerable concern.

The study suggests that while governments and law enforcement agencies will be required to adapt strategies to address the dark web, traditional policing and investigative techniques will remain vital. These include traditional firearms control measures designed to tackle illicit trafficking, such as efficient marking and record-keeping and good stockpile management.

“The dark web offers a platform to trade firearms, but does not create completely new firearms,” says Dr Persi Paoli. “If properly implemented, all measures designed to tackle illegal arms trafficking ‘in the real world’ may reduce the availability of illegal weapons to be traded. The only exception is the availability on the dark web of 3D models for homemade 3D-printed firearms. This new element will require further investigation as 3D printing continues to develop and grow.”