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Study: Criminals easily skirt law buying guns online

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

This spring, a man in King County posted an ad on an online gun market, seeking a 9mm handgun.

“Cash in hand for the right deal,” he wrote.

Around the same time, a man in Tacoma posted an ad saying he was “always looking for guns.” A Vancouver man posted an ad seeking to buy pistols. A Longview man posted an ad seeking a lower receiver for an assault rifle.

Each of the men was legally prohibited from owning firearms due to criminal convictions – burglary, robbery, rape, assault on a police officer. None could pass a background check with a licensed dealer, but online sales, like gun show sales, are a complete black market. No questions asked.

These examples come from a new report compiled by the group Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for gun-control measures and in this case, for Washington’s Initiative 594. I-594 would expand background checks to private sales, including online and at gun shows. The report makes a very specific rebuttal to the inane and reflexive claims that background checks have no effect whatsoever on criminal gun purchasing – because it establishes clearly that at least some criminals are using the backroads of the Internet to purchase guns.

Notably, the report tracked the source of a gun used in a murder-suicide this year in the Tri-Cities and found that Aaron Newport used a gun he purchased online to kill himself and his ex-girlfriend, Monique Williams. Newport had previously attempted to buy a gun through a licensed dealer and was rejected because he has a criminal background.

Background checks are not some perfect solution. Of course. But the report reinforces two indisputable facts: Criminals do, in fact, try to buy guns from registered dealers, and FBI background checks block the sales. And criminals do, in fact, try to buy guns through the side channels where background checks are not required.

Why keep that black market open for them?

The group examined online gun ads in Washington at five websites between Feb. 25 and July 12. There were more than 16,000 ads to sell, and 1,164 “want to buy” ads. Most of the ads could not be tracked to a specific person.

Of the 81 ads that could, though, eight were posted by criminals seeking to purchase guns illegally. That is a small sample, and the actual number for all sales could be lower or higher; one suspects that most felons attempting to buy a gun on the black market would not identify themselves. But if you were to extrapolate that sample to the total number of guns sold online in Washington state, it would add up to more than 4,000 attempts by criminals to purchase guns.

The Everytown report concludes: “This number of illegal transfers exceeds the number of attempted gun sales by prohibited buyers that licensed gun dealers in Washington successfully denied in 2013.”

In other words, if Everytown’s estimates were correct, the gun show loophole erases whatever positive impact that background checks have in the state.

Opponents of the measure assert that closing the so-called gun show loophole would have no effect on criminals, and would burden law-abiding gun owners. The tales of woe that accompany this argument are almost comical in their hyperbole – neighbors prevented from selling a shotgun over the back fence, uncles prohibited from handing a shotgun in a warm, loving way to their nephews – and they all come with the very definitive belief that background checks can have no effect on criminals buying guns “because criminals, by definition, do not follow the law.”

Opponents also revert to the last refuge of the paranoid, the hideout where all logic in the gun debate goes to die: the fear of gun confiscation.

The truth is that criminals – the dumbest ones, probably, but still – do try to buy guns from licensed dealers. Since 1998, FBI background checks have blocked the sale of around 40,000 guns in Washington, according to Everytown’s analysis. The FBI says that in the past decade nationwide, background checks have resulted in 700,000 denials. In Colorado, where expanded background checks took effect 15 months ago, more than 300 gun sales have been blocked.

Just as there is no doubt that background checks do prevent some gun sales, there is no doubt that some criminals seek to avoid the law by purchasing guns online. The New York Times examined private gun transactions at Armslist.com, and repeatedly found felons buying or selling guns. The Times concluded, “Armslist and similar sites function as unregulated bazaars, where the essential anonymity of the Internet allows unlicensed sellers to advertise scores of weapons and people legally barred from gun ownership to buy them.”

In the report released this week, Everytown for Gun Safety laid out the case of the King County man – the one with cash in hand for the right deal – in disturbing detail. His first felony was a conviction for stealing a car in 1976. In 1987, his ex-wife got a restraining order against him. She wrote in her request for the order: “He said he was going to go buy a gun so he could knock me off and not have to worry about where I was or what I was doing.” He was later convicted of domestic violence – and then, in 1992, he was given a five-year prison sentence for assaulting two cops.

This year, he was online, looking for a gun. No questions asked.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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