Today, we launch a week-long series of reports that will examine the varying perspectives in the Pacific Northwest on guns. We’ll hear from hunters, police, criminals, and gun violence victims, among others. These are their “Gun Stories.”
We start with a visit to the people who make a living out of buying and selling firearms.
Walking through the door of H&H Firearms and Tack in Bend is like taking a trip through time. On the walls you’ll find guns that long ago became synonymous with the old cowboys — names like Colt, Remington and Winchester. And everywhere you look is a nod to the Wild West — from the old rusty miner’s lantern, to the life-size cardboard cutout of John Wayne.
Owner Del Hamburger keeps conservative talk radio on in the background around the clock.
He’s in his 80s and sports a thick shock of silvery hair that he keeps combed into a pompadour.
“I’ve been working on guns since I was about 13 years old. In the Dakotas during the cold winter, I had bench downstairs by the furnace. And my brother was sending guns from overseas, from Japan when he was in the Navy and that’s just how it went.”
Hamburger’s filling in some paperwork when a young man walks through the door. He’s carrying a rifle case and cardboard box. He asks if Hamburger would buy his old western field rifle. The box is full of high capacity magazines.
Hamburger isn’t interested in the rifle. He says he’d have to put too much time into fixing it. But he is interested in what’s in the box.
“How many mags you got in there?” Hamburger asks.
“Ten Mags,” the man replies.
“Ten? I’ll give you $200 for the ten mags,” Hamburger makes the deal.
The young man leaves and Hamburger gets back to his paperwork. It’s a background check filled out by a customer earlier in the day.
In 2011, 47 percent of adults in the U.S. reported they had a gun in their home, according to a Gallup poll. Oregon law requires background checks for all sales conducted by federally-licensed gun dealers.
Buyers need to show ID and have their thumb prints taken. They also need to answer a series of questions. Hamburger glances over the form.
“Have you been convicted of any court crimes? Or have you been discharged from the military under dishonorable…just, general questions.”
Hamburger sends that information to the Oregon State Police. The agency maintains a hotline that’s staffed 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. OSP runs the information through a number of state and local databases in search of disqualifiers — things like felony convictions, misdemeanors that involve domestic violence or a history of mental health problems.
Hamburger says usually he’ll get an answer right over the phone.
“And either you’re delayed, denied or you can have your gun.”
He says he has mixed feelings about the system. “Outlaws,” as he calls them, have no business owning a firearm. But he also believes every law abiding citizen should have a gun at home. And thinks background checks aren’t stopping determined criminals from getting their hands on guns.
Hamburger bristles at some of the proposals in Washington, D.C. to tighten gun regulations, especially those that would ban high capacity magazines.
“It’s not the rounds. It’s no fault of the gun. It’s no fault of the ammo. To be polite, it’s the idiot that’s using it.”
Chuck Defoe also sells firearms. He’s the owner of Ken’s Sporting Goods in Crescent.
“Background check I think is a must. You’ve got to do it.” He says background checks work. He remembers some time ago a guy came in the story trying to buy a gun. He was denied. Two days later a different man came in looking to buy a gun - using the same identification as the first guy.
“And we tried to get his ID — who he really was — and he picked it up and he was gone. So we as dealers, we have to be on top of it all the time.”
Defoe says dealers are also on the front lines when it comes to blocking the trafficking of stolen weapons.
“Any time somebody brings a gun to trade in and or they want to sell it, we call the state of Oregon and do a numbers check.”
Defoe takes out a Remington hunting rifle, points to sequence of stamped numbers on the side of the barrel.
“Right here. Here’s the serial number. Can you see it?”
Those are numbers state police check against a database of weapons reported stolen. And every once in awhile, they’ll get a match.
“We had another hit the other day and what happens is the man in blue comes through the door and I say ‘This is Mr. Jones. Here’s the gun.’ “
Defoe says in that case the person in possession of the gun was an older man. The man claimed he had no idea it was stolen, and that he bought it years ago from another man who had since died.
Defoe says he believed the guy. But that hasn’t been true for every person who walks into his store.
“I’ve stopped a gun sale a couple times just from gut feelings. If somebody’s kind of off their rocker I will not be part of selling them a firearm. They can go somewhere else and buy it if they need to. I’m not doing it.”
Both Defoe and Hamburger say ever since the gun deaths in Newtown, Connecticut, sales have risen dramatically. Defoe says overall sales at his store are up around 500 percent over the last 12 months. Hamburger says he’s continually having to spread out the handguns in his display case to keep it from looking empty.
With supplies tight, gun shows offer a place where prospective buyers can connect with dealers to find what they’re looking for.
“This is the busiest we’ve ever had it. It is absolutely the record crowd,” according to Ken Daugherty the owner and promoter of the Oregon Trail Gun Show.
He says he’s been doing this show nearly 20 years. This weekend, he’s at the Deschutes County Expo Center in Redmond. There’s a line out the door for ticket holders ready to buy. All weapons need to be checked at the door, where they’re banded with a plastic tie that prevents them from being loaded.
Clark Linss is one of about 70 exhibitors here. Linss specializes in antique guns. He says he’s been buying and selling them for 30 years now.
“You never really own this stuff, you’re just a custodian of it for a short period of time, this is made in 1871. That gun is a hundred and thirty years old. How many people do you think have owned that in 130 years. So they’re just trading hands constantly.”
The question of how these guns change hands has brought a great deal of attention to what many call the gun show loophole.
That’s a type of omission in federal law that allows non-licensed individuals to sell their guns without conducting a criminal background check on the prospective buyer.
Gun show promoter Ken Daugherty says there are a lot of states where you can do that. “But that’s not so in Oregon. If you are in a gun show, whether you’re a federal firearms dealer, or a private individual, you still have to do a background check.”
But while Oregon is one of a small but growing number of states that requires background checks for private firearm sales at gun shows, neither state nor federal laws require a background check for private sales that take place outside a gun show.
One proposal in Congress would make background checks mandatory for all gun sales.
Here in Oregon, the Legislature is considering a bill that would essentially do the same thing.
Both Hamburger and Defoe say they support that. Defoe says he recommends a background check for all private sales — just to be safe. He says some dealers will provide that service already, for a fee.
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.