On average, at least one Oregonian dies each day as a result of injury from firearms.
But that may seem a little less startling next to the fact that nearly every other adult in Oregon owns a gun or has access to one in their household. Well, 39.8 percent to be more specific, according to the Center for Disease Control’s ‘Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System’ (BRFSS).¹
If that isn’t enough to already scare the shit right out of you, perhaps more terrifying is the rate at which guns continue to fall into the public’s hands on a daily basis. Though it doesn’t correlate exactly to specific number of sales, in 2014 alone there were 243,044 FBI issued ‘instant background checks’ for the potential sale of firearms in Oregon – a rate that has increased by over 100,000 since just the year 2000. Approximately only 2 percent of those checks end up denying buyers due to criminal history or mental illness.²
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no left-wing, freedom hater. I’m a gun owner and a sportsman myself, and I’d have to assume that anyone who argues against target practice in a safe and controlled environment bringing a complete rush of exhilaration, just hasn’t ever had the experience. But the aforementioned facts cause me to raise the question: just how easy is it to purchase a firearm in Oregon and is regulation stringent enough in our decidedly liberal state?
The black market for guns is more or less uncontrolled, and data on such transactions and ownership rates is not available. I wouldn’t even know where to begin looking if I wanted to pursue this route. If you have an “in” with one of those illegal distributor types portrayed by Hollywood as sporting a trench coat and slinging automatic weapons, explosives and the like out of the back of a van in some dark alley in Chinatown: much respect on the shady points – but realistically, you’re probably just as much a sociopath as your connect.
More practical avenues for acquiring guns, such as through the inheritance of a deceased family member, or the sale from one private party to another (i.e. off of Craigslist or from online distributors), are unfortunately not well regulated either. However, for the sake of research, I did the most American thing I could think of and went to the “Original” Rose City Gun and Knife Show at the Portland Expo Center to get to the heart of the subject.
We arrived at the massive complex around 1o am on a Saturday morning, hoping that we’d beat the crowds and be able to get in some good conversation with the folks working the event. No such luck though. It turns out that hunters and gun collectors must not be night owls, as I should have expected, because the place was packed only an hour after the show opened its doors for the day. There were well over a thousand people – mostly men – all swarming up and down long aisles of tables with seemingly no end in sight, all stacked with guns, ammunition, knives, war memorabilia and Nazi paraphernalia. That’s right, NAZI paraphernalia. Why anyone would buy that shit is beyond me – but I guess I’m not much of a history fanatic.
As you could imagine, I was a little terrified about this whole situation from the get go. I’ve gone through plenty metal detectors and interacted with my fair share of security before, but never have I been so caught off guard by the question the guard asked me before passing through the scanner.
“Are you bringing a weapon into the facility today?”
Then it hit me – no shit – concealed carry permits; most of the folks who come to gun shows probably are packing heat.
The first booth you see after walking in the room is run by the rough and ready ‘Bikers Against Child Abuse,’ though these big boys didn’t seem all that tough slurping big gulps and peddling their gang swag. Strolling through the madness further, I’m consistently bewildered more by each new thing than the last. There is a concession stand on the south side of the room cooking up “Freedom Dogs” for their clientele. At one booth, some complete shit-for-brains was selling a natural remedy for Ebola and Lyme disease, as well as elixir to boost happiness. In the middle of the room there is a class in session, teaching approximately thirty retiree-aged folks how to treat severe physical trauma, and why economic instability is a good reason to arm one’s household.
After completing one circuit around the room, and already overwhelmingly tired from all of the top-notch people watching, I realized what I had to do. To get any real information out of this whole investigation, I had to test the waters. I decided to chat with one cheerful looking gentleman manning a large table in the middle of the room, who had some vintage pistols for sale that had caught my eye.
“So how does this all work,” I asked, “can anyone come stock up on as many guns and as much and as much ammo as they want at these events?”
“No, you have to be 18 years or older, and pass a criminal background check to purchase anything” he said. “Also, non-Oregon residents and individuals under 21 are not allowed to purchase handguns, only long rifles.”
OK well that all makes sense I suppose, considering handguns are the most commonly used weapon in firearm fatalities.³ “So what does the background check screen for?” I follow up with.
“Oh, it looks for a lot of things.” The salesman added. “Felonies, domestic violence convictions or restraining orders, record of illegal drug use, or treatment for mental illness.”
“But there’s no real way of knowing if someone with a mental health issue hasn’t been diagnosed or treated for their condition, right?” I prodded further. “What’s stopping some fucked up person who’s never been caught up by the system before from coming in here and popping rounds into any one of these guns and reeking havoc?”
“Well, first of all there are zip ties in the chambers of all the guns on the floor in here, which prevents them from being able to fire. But also, myself and other folks in here would have a gun on you before you’d be able to get one of these loaded” he assured me warmly.
By this point I felt I had worn my welcome in the conversation, and, imagining thousands of men in different shades of camouflage all pointing guns in my direction if I made one wrong move, I figured I’d filled my investigate quota for the day. I decided to purchase something inexpensive from the man to help justify taking up so much of his time. I settled on an inexpensive vintage 22 caliber pistol made by Iver Johnson in the 1950’s for cheap target practice.
After making my selection, I was passed down to the end of the booth where a friendly lady took my ID and helped me fill out a basic questionnaire to determine whether or not I was a legal, mentally stable resident of the state, and not addicted to drugs. I gave my thumb prints, and only a few minutes later I was able to make my purchase.
By the time I’d arrived back home and gotten my new pistol locked away into a safe, I’d realized a few serious takeaways from the day’s adventure.
First, it would be wise for background checks to be required for all firearm transactions – not just through licensed dealers.
Second, the abundant availability of these deadly weapons to the public and without proper valuation or adequate education or training required seems like a major risk. Automobiles for example are the next leading cause for fatalities in the United States (only approximately three percent higher than firearm deaths*), however their ownership and use is regulated much more stringently.
And finally, the methodology for criminal background checks could use a good re-tooling and broad national enforcement. Mental health treatment data is not reported consistently across the US, and gaps in this data can be catastrophic if firearms end up in the hands of the potentially troubled.
1. BRFSS Survey Results – Firearms. Source: http://www.schs.state.nc.us/SCHS/brfss/2001/us/firearm3.html
2. Ronald J. Frandsen, Michael Bowling, Ph.D., and Gene A. Lauver. Trends for Background Checks for Firearm Transfers, 1999-2008. Source: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/bjs/grants/231187.pdf
3. Oregon Public Health Division. Firearm Fatalities in Oregon: Oregon Injury and Violence Prevention Program Fact Sheet, 2012. Source: http://public.health.oregon.gov/DiseasesConditions/InjuryFatalityData/Documents/FirearmFatality.pdf