Blurring the business line -- buying and selling on the Internet

Today, it is possible to purchase anything you want or need on the Internet. To an extent, the Internet has become the synonym of yesterday's Main Street, where it matters less if you are a retail giant and more if your name and site are easily Googled.

Eric Thompson of Green Bay, Wisconsin is a family man. He has a wife and three young children. He is also an entrepreneur. A young man in his thirties, he runs a successful online and offline business. He sells guns.

Eric is the resource that Seung-Hui Cho utilized to purchase the weapon used in the Virginia Tech killings. He also sold magazines and a holster to Steven Kazmierczak prior to Steven’s shooting spree at Northern Illinois University.

There is certainly enough to debate regarding gun control and the constitutional right to bear arms in America. Regardless of that rich, fertile ground for discussion, there are other things to consider. The point is the law, and the blurred line between the online business world and the real life realities.

The federal government, through the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) arm regulates the sale of firearms in the United States. It defines the federal rules and enforces them. Beyond ATF is the State itself, whose rules must also be obeyed. Through these rules, the Internet seller is governed.

The sale of accessories -- holsters, magazines, grips, and so forth -- is neutral. I can make my selection, enter my credit card information, and complete the transaction online. In my state of Minnesota, I can do this by walking into my local Gander Mountain retailer (about five miles north of my home) or using the online store. I can also use a number of other online stores that cater to the gun owner. High Adventure Outfitters will find virtually anything I am looking for in hunting accessories, for instance. The item of my choice can be shipped directly to my home address.

If I want to purchase a firearm, the rules change. I may make my selection online but the weapon itself must be shipped to one of 70,000 federally licensed firearms dealers, who do background checks prior to releasing the weapon to the purchaser. In my state, that means that I have to go to the local police department or Sheriff, complete an application, wait for approval, and receive a Permit to Acquire.

When I go to pick up the package (that I have already paid for), the dealer must then fill out paperwork and call the local police or Sheriff for approval to release the weapon. The dealer will then complete the transaction and, carrying the weapon in its sealed box, walk me to the front door where the weapon is released to my hands.

Or so it goes in my state.

The question really is, “What can we sell, or facilitate the sale of, online?” I like to think that if the item is legally available for purchase, I should be able to make that purchase via the method that suits me best. As I spend the lion’s share of my day in front of a computer, online transactions work best for me.

I can’t say that I would choose to purchase a gun online, but I know that I have purchased hard-to-find accessories online and am likely to do so again. I also purchase hard-to-find books online and many other things.

From a business perspective, the online presence should be an extension of the brick and mortar store or the unused back bedroom of one’s home. Either way, the Web-store is little different than the physical store.

Technology, applied correctly, can be a godsend to the local Mom and Pop storefront. Online retailing gives the local business owner an opportunity to compete with national chains. Given that we all tend to complain about the faceless “big box” retailers that have taken over smaller, family-owned business over the years, I would think that we would be thrilled to see these businesses given an equal ground. Online retailing has the ability to bring back the “Main Street” closeness in a whole new way.

That’s not a bad thing.

More information:

Gun dealer’s Rx for school shootings (Star Tribune)