In our series Gun Stories, we’re hearing from people who have direct experience with firearms. We’ve heard from gun store operators, firearms owners. Now we’ll hear the stories of a couple of people who’ve committed gun crimes. Where did they get their guns?
Paul Adams is 50 years old. He lives in the basement of a North Portland home and picks up carpentry work when he can. But 27 years ago, he was living in Redondo Beach, California.
He shot a man who he says, raped his sister.
“I was at a kegger party and … came up to me and started taunting me and backed me into a corner with a big pair of tailor scissors. They were about 14 inches long. Tell me, what was I going to do about it. That my sister got what she had coming….And he looked around at his bodies to smile and I slid around the side of him and got away.”
But Adams went home, got his father’s gun, returned to the party and waited outside.
“He came swaddling out to his car, all drunk. Got in. He rolled the window down. He lit his cigarette. And I crossed the street from behind the car. I walked right up, elbowed him in the chest. I dropped the gun straight down in his lap and pulled the trigger five times.”
Adams served seven years for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
He says he wasn’t thinking about prison, gun laws, or his future when he shot the man. And he says he’d do it again — even if there were no such a thing as a gun.
“I probably would have ran him over with the car — a couple of times.”
Some people, like Adams, commit gun crimes in a moment of rage or passion. They may own a gun legally.
But police say career criminals — who are involved in drugs or theft or gang affiliation — find guns in other ways.
Matthew Hoffman knows a lot about that.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, by his own admission, he sold marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine around Portland.
He says he got his first gun when he was 16. A friend bought it for him for $100.
He says he’d lift his sweatshirt nonchalantly — so friends knew he was packing. He says it made him feel powerful and for the first time, wanted.
He remembers facing off with a rival group from Parkrose High.
“One of the guys pulled his gun out and just had it next to him and was holding it. And I was like, okay, we want to do that. So I ran over to my car and I grabbed mine. And I actually pointed it at them. and they jumped in their car and took off. And that brought a lot of that same power thing. All I had to do was point it at you and you guys took off.”
Hoffman ended up behind bars many times for things like burglary and assault.
After rehab and several suicide attempts, he says he’s clean now. He counsels troubled men at the De Paul Treatment Center in downtown Portland.
But when he was younger, Hoffman says guns weren’t hard to find. He says he’d tell a trusted dealer that he was looking. Or he’d take a roll of cash to one of the parks around town — known for its gang affiliation.
Here’s what the dealers would ask: Do you want a legit gun? Or one with the serial numbers filed off?
“Yeah, because if you don’t have a felony, then you can have a pistol. You know what I mean. So, I’d been convicted of a felony when I was 18, so I was screwed from then on. Anytime I get caught with a pistol, I automatically go to prison.”
Not every gun has a serial number — older weapons for example. But newer guns are meant to have a number etched on their side.
The Oregon State Police has a “Firearms Instant Check System” for owners to check a weapon’s history.
But Portland Gun Task Force Sergeant, Steve Wilbon, says having a gun with the numbers filed off won’t necessarily get you into trouble.
“Simply possessing a firearm that is missing a serial number does not necessarily mean that that person will be charged with a crime. We have to prove that they intentionally did that.”
Wilbon says Portland’s gun task force collects an about 200 guns a year that were used illegally. He doesn’t know how many illegal weapons there are in the city, but he says, 200 is scratching the surface. He takes suspicious guns and tests them to see if they were used in a crime.
In the city of Portland, gun owners need to know the serial numbers of their firearms, and tell authorities if their gun is stolen. The city can fine owners who fail to do so.
That wouldn’t have made much of a difference to former drug dealer Matthew Hoffman. Hoffman says he went through a half dozen guns, all cheap and disposable.
“Once you shoot at someone with one, you get rid of it. If you want to stay out of prison. You know, I used one in a robbery. And even though I didn’t shoot it, it was still something I didn’t want coming back to me if I got caught. So I threw that one in the river.”
He says he threw several in the river. He’d take them apart, wipe them down, then toss them.
“I always did it on Marine Drive, down there by Ditlers.”
He says he needed a gun for protection and enforcement. He remembers shooting one of his customers in a car. He says the man didn’t have enough money for the deal and started reaching behind his back. Hoffman thought he was going for a gun.
“I remember in my head thinking, everything kind of slowed down and I remember in my head thinking I was just going to keep pulling the trigger. And it was like as soon as the gunshot went off in the car, it was so loud and like the smoke and everything. I just kind of froze and everything stopped in time for a second.”
Hoffman says he was lucky. The man scrambled out of the car and never turned up at a hospital or filed a complaint.
Because men like Hoffman don’t hang around to explain their actions after a shooting, gun statistics on criminals are limited.
But State Epidemiologist Dr. Katrina Hedberg says between 2006 and 2010, firearms were used in 70 percent of gang-related homicides.
She says more study is needed to better understand why people end up shooting people.
“I really believe we need to be looking at what factors increase risk and what are the supportive environments.”
Meaning how can young men be supported to stop them from joining a gang or selling drugs. What would convince people to stop settling disputes about relationships with firearms?
Many of the sources for this series came to us from OPB’s Public Insight Network. You can share your perspective on our “Gun Stories” tumblr page, and hear all of the features in this series by visiting opb.org/gunstories.