On Friday, November 21, 2014, a 27-year-old man in Portland responded to an online listing for a .45 caliber handgun, one of hundreds posted on the website Armslist.com that day. The man was prohibited from possessing firearms, having been convicted of felony burglaries in 2005 and 2007, but that didn’t stop him from shopping in this online market. By the end of the month he had obtained a Taurus handgun and just weeks later, he would be arrested for attempting to rob a Portland-area business at gunpoint — police recovered a Taurus handgun from him at the scene.
Federal law requires brick-and-mortar gun stores to run background checks on potential buyers and bars domestic abusers and criminals like this man from buying firearms. There is abundant evidence that this stops gun sales to dangerous people. But in Oregon, a gaping loophole in the law makes it easy for people like the Portland man to buy guns from unlicensed sellers who are not required to run background checks. As a result, there was nothing to stop this dangerous criminal from getting a gun from a stranger he met online, no questions asked.
Illegal gun sales like these contribute to crime and violence perpetrated on Oregon citizens, as well as residents of nearby states. But until this investigation, no one knew how big this loophole was, or how many criminals in Oregon were taking advantage of it to arm themselves online.
The findings are deeply troubling:
To characterize the group of Oregonians buying guns in unlicensed online sales, Everytown contracted private investigators to post online ads for firearms. Using contact information voluntarily provided by respondents to those ads, Everytown searched court records for previous criminal convictions and civil orders issued against them.
In real-time, investigators watched meth users seek to evade the background check system and buy guns. Unfortunately, this is hardly surprising, given that the Oregon Department of Justice has documented numerous connections between the state’s illegal drug markets and unlawful firearm possession and crime. Numerous domestic abusers were also shopping for guns online, which is particularly concerning because the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation, the woman is five times more likely to be murdered.
Would-be gun buyers identified in the investigation include the following:
On February 3, 2015, investigators spoke to a 34-year-old male who had responded to an ad for a Hi-Point handgun. As a convicted felon and methamphetamine user, he was prohibited from possessing firearms. He had been repeatedly arrested and convicted for methamphetamine possession and other felonies, including an attempted armed robbery in 2008.
On December 15, 2014, a 29-year-old male offered $100 for a Hi-Point handgun. A meth user, he had been convicted of numerous felonies over the last decade and was under indictment for 10 felony counts stemming from an incident in April 2014. In court documents he indicated that he first used meth in the sixth grade and continues to use it on a weekly basis.
Between November 22 and December 30, 2014, a 48-year-old male responded to two listings advertising handguns, writing in one email, “If you have this weapon I will buy it from you Saturday.” The mother of his child had sought a restraining order against him earlier that year and renewed it on January 15, 2015, which prohibited him from possessing guns. In court documents she said she was afraid of him, describing how he left “many threatening phone messages about killing me and hurting my family,” and provided evidence from social media showing that he had sympathized with other men who had murdered their former intimate partners.
On December 10, 2014, a 25-year-old male texted investigators in response to an ad for a Hi-Point handgun: “if you could hold on to it till next wensday (sic) and I can give you 130$ for it.” As a convicted domestic abuser and felon, he was prohibited from possessing firearms. In 2008 he pled guilty to domestic violence assault, and in 2011 he pled guilty to felony burglary.
On November 24, 2014, a 42-year-old male called investigators in response to an online ad for a Glock 27 handgun. The man was prohibited under federal and Oregon law from possessing firearms. In 2002, he pled guilty to a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence after assaulting his wife. Later that same year, he was convicted of two felonies after robbing a pair of businesses at gunpoint on the same day. In 2011 he was also charged with possession of methamphetamine, though the case was ultimately dismissed.
It's clear that criminals in Oregon are arming themselves through this loophole. To estimate the volume of unlicensed gun sales taking place online in the state, Everytown extracted data on gun ads publicly posted on four major Oregon classified websites where strangers connect and arrange offline gun transfers.
During a seven-month period, unlicensed sellers in Oregon posted 14,916 gun ads, a rate of more than 25,000 gun ads per year. This dwarfs the number of unlicensed sales conducted at gun shows, which have been subject to background checks in Oregon since 2000. Unlicensed sellers in the state post more gun ads online each week than they sell at gun shows in a full year.
Expanding and strengthening the background check system is the single most effective way to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Seventeen states have passed legislation to go beyond federal law to ensure that would-be gun buyers undergo a background check whether they are buying a gun from an unlicensed seller or a brick-and-mortar dealer. And the legislation saves lives. In states that have adopted these requirements, there are:
There is a bill in the Oregon legislature this year that would require a criminal background check for every gun sale in Oregon, with reasonable exceptions for family transfers, hunting, and self-defense. SB 941 would expand the existing system to make sure that everyone buying a gun in Oregon passes a criminal background check, no matter where they buy the gun and no matter who sells it to them.
Background checks have widespread support from Oregon voters and residents. Eight out of 10 Oregon residents support requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales. It’s the single most effective way to stop the flow of guns into the hands of dangerous people, and it’s a law that would make all Oregon residents safer.
Background checks make a difference. The Oregon legislature can reduce crime and save lives by passing SB 941.
Oregon legislators recently introduced a life-saving background check bill (SB 941) to close the dangerous loophole that gives criminals and other dangerous people easy access to buy guns -- and key lawmakers will be voting on this legislation soon.
Make sure your lawmakers have the facts about online gun sales in Oregon now by sending them this report -- before they vote.