Oregon doesn’t need to expand gun background checks


by Dan Lucas

Here are the reasons for opposing an expansion of Oregon’s background checks for gun purchases & transfers:

  1. Oregon already has some of the most restrictive requirements in the U.S. for gun background checks.
  2. The proposed background check expansion wouldn’t have prevented the recent tragedies in Clackamas and Connecticut.
  3. The proposed background check expansion would create more government records, and government has demonstrated that it’s not a good steward of our private information – especially gun owners’ private information.
  4. Oregon is not prosecuting criminals who try to buy guns – which dramatically reduces the purpose and value of background checks.
  5. Oregon is not submitting mental health records like they should be – the kind that could have prevented the Virginia Tech shooting – where the shooter used a gun he bought after passing a background check, despite having been declared mentally ill 2 years earlier. This also dramatically reduces the purpose and value of background checks. [see update below]
  6. There is a better, bipartisan solution: improving mental health treatment in Oregon.

One of the four gun bills from the last Oregon Legislative session is resurfacing, and it’s being pushed by Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene). The bill is the so called “universal background check” which would expand background checks to all private gun sales and transfers, except between family members. Oregon currently requires background checks for purchases at gun dealers and at gun shows — already making Oregon one of the most restrictive states.

The renewed interest in pushing for more gun control came after the tragedies at Clackamas Town Center and Newtown, Connecticut. This latest attempt is still being driven by those tragedies. Sen. Ginny Burdick (D-Portland) recently told The Oregonian that “having a vote on the bill would address the growing frustration among gun-control advocates about a lack of action in the Legislature following mass shootings in Clackamas and Connecticut.”

Unfortunately, expanded background checks wouldn’t have prevented either of those tragedies. It’s one of the main reasons the bill failed last year. In both the Clackamas and Connecticut tragedies, the perpetrators took the guns from someone else. But both perpetrators did have mental health issues.

There are other reasons to oppose an expansion of Oregon’s background checks. Every background check creates a record with a government agency, and government has shown that it is not a good steward of data, especially gun owner’s private information. So beyond the massive leaks of government data to WikiLeaks and by Edward Snowden, there are specific releases of gun owners’ private information. Those releases include a New York paper publishing gun owners’ private information online, including maps to their houses, and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office releasing their entire database of CHL holders to the Oregonian in 2007. Some of the people whose personal information was released were crime victims seeking to protect themselves, victims of domestic abuse, and law enforcement and district attorneys and their families.

Another reason to oppose expanding background checks is that it would further burden law-abiding citizens while failing to close gaping existing problems with the very people background checks are supposed to catch: criminals and people with mental health problems.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show that in 2010, 2,400 (1.4%) of the 168,000 applications for firearm transfers or permits in Oregon were denied. Of the 2,400 applications denied, only 90 applicants were arrested. It is illegal for people with criminal records to purchase a gun, so why aren’t these illegal attempted purchases being prosecuted?

Regarding the gaping hole in screening for people with mental health problems, an NBC article from last April points out “Just seven states account for 98 percent of the names prohibited for mental illness, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, meaning most states are in there barely, if at all. In one oft-cited example, Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho passed a background check before obtaining a gun and killing 32 people, despite having been declared mentally ill two years before.”

Oregon is one of those states that continue to ignore federal law by failing to forward mental health records to the national database. A 2011 article in The Oregonian reported that Oregon had submitted just three mental health records as of October of that year.  [see update below]

Sen. Prozanski’s proposed legislation is a solution in search of a problem. This expanded background check would not have prevented either of the recent tragedies that generated the impetus to do something, and it places additional burdens on law-abiding citizens. It would be far more productive to resume last session’s bipartisan work to enhance mental health treatment as the best way to prevent gun-related tragedies.

UPDATE (2/1/2014): A June 2013 Oregonian article provided newer information on how many mental health records Oregon has submitted to NICS: 30,000. Oregon is doing much better now. [h/t Penny Okamoto, Exec Dir of Ceasefire Oregon] The problem outlined in the 2013 NBC article still exists, though. 7 states account for 98% of the names prohibited for mental illness. That means that 43 states are not forwarding mental health records the way they should be.

To read more from Dan, visit www.dan-lucas.com