Firearms are anonymously bought and sold around the world on the dark web, according to scientists who noted that despite debates over gun regulations make headlines, underground operation for weapons has drawn very little attention.
The research, published in the journal Deviant Behavior, revealed key insights on a trade that undercuts gun laws in the US, and other countries around the world where regulations are tighter.
The dark web is the World Wide Web content that exists on networks that use the Internet but require specific software, configurations, or authorisation to access.
"We know so little about the distribution of firearms sold on the dark web that it's kind of a black hole, similar to illicit pharmaceuticals and narcotics: We know people buy them online, but we don't know to what extent," said Thomas Holt, professor at Michigan State University in the US.
"What I found most surprising was that most of what we saw wasn't rifles of military-grade weapons," Holt said in a statement.
"Instead of exotic or rare firearms, we saw handguns -- the kinds of weapons someone in the US could buy from stores or vendors with a license," he added.
Sixty-four per cent of the products advertised were handguns, 17 per cent were semi-automatic long guns and fully automatic long guns were 4 per cent.
The dark web allows for total anonymity, enabling those who would not be able to purchase a firearm legally get access to weapons.
The team dug into shops, or single-owner websites hosted on Tor, a dark web browser, using a scaping tool to track vendors anonymously selling firearms, as well as to identity patterns of their operations.
Common threads between the sellers included: vendors deliberately selling hand and long guns; the use of bitcoin for payment; sellers' shops requesting PO Boxes to ship the product; and how sellers delivered the guns.
"The sellers were very clear about how the transaction would go, which underscored the need for consistent secrecy. Some profile names indicated that they operated out of Europe, but there's little else to tell about who these people are," Holt said.
"The sellers would oftentimes say they'd ship the product in separate pieces and hide them in books, shoes, cocoa, computer parts and other innocuous things, as well as to be alerted if a part was held up in customs," he said.
While the dark web masks a user's identity, location and any traces of persona, the findings reveal the need for further investigations, and potential growth and impact.
"We shouldn't take these markets as trivial because they could grow, travel and change very quickly. It takes just one gun purchased through the dark web to kill someone and the danger is very real," Holt said.
"While technology doesn't allow we as researchers to know who these sellers and buyers are, we can confirm that the transactions are very real, that they're international in scope, and that the buyers could be violating major government regulations and guidelines," Holt said.
This market could cater to major violence and the danger is we don't know to what extent, researchers said.