Oregon lawmakers considered a bill on Thursday to close a loophole in state and federal gun sale laws.

House Bill 2543 would prohibit a gun sale without explicit approval from the state’s firearm background check system and would add Oregon to a growing list of states taking steps to make background checks more consistent and effective

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“I’ll acknowledge this bill won’t end the damage caused by firearms in our communities,” said Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, who said a rise in weapons violations over the past four years is part of a broader gun violence epidemic. “But we should do everything possible to close these loopholes and provide law enforcement the tools and resources necessary to keep firearms out of the hands of prohibited persons.”

Oregon state law requires anyone attempting to purchase a firearm to pass a criminal background check through the Oregon State Police. That typically takes a few minutes but, depending on circumstances or demand on the system, it can sometimes take much longer. If the dealer doesn’t get a result in three days, federal law allows the sale to proceed.

Guns for sale at a Portland gun show.

Guns for sale at a Portland gun show in 2016.

Dave Blanchard / OPB

That gap is known as the Charleston loophole, named after Dylann Roof, the South Carolina man who killed nine Black people during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof was allowed to buy the gun he used in the 2015 mass shooting after his background check results took longer than three days. Because he admitted to drug possession during an earlier arrest, Roof would have been prohibited from purchasing the gun.

It wasn’t an isolated lapse. Data from the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety estimates that background checks delayed more than three days are four times more likely to ultimately be denied. In 2019, Everytown said, 2,989 firearms nationwide were transferred to prohibited persons before a background check could be completed.

In Oregon, estimates are similarly high.

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“My office used some data to get a rough estimate that there may have been around 2,200 sales that slipped through that loophole in Oregon over the past two and a half years,” said Rep. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, one of the bill’s sponsors. She explained that number relies on national data to make inferences about Oregon.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Sollman said in an interview after Thursday’s hearing.

As Sollman’s methodology highlights, data on gun sales and gun ownership is sparse, which means actual figures are impossible to confirm. Many dealers say they play it safe, ignoring the leeway the law grants them and refusing to transfer a firearm without a completed background check. While the proposed change to Oregon’s law would do away with uncertainty, the net impact is difficult to know.

The proposed change comes at the tail end of a year in which Oregon – and the country – saw a record surge in background checks and firearm sales. As fears of food shortages and societal collapse were spreading as fast as the coronavirus in the early months of the pandemic, background checks in Oregon increased by almost 50%. Industry research firm Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting estimated a year-over-year increase in firearm sales of 85% nationwide last March.

The increased demand has led to a backlog of about 7,000 background checks in Oregon, according to Oregon State Police. Multiple gun stores in the state tell OPB checks are taking as long as two or three weeks to complete.

“Prior to 2020, I had never had to wait more than about 30 minutes for a check to be completed,” said Roger Beyer, who testified against the proposed bill on behalf of the National Rifle Association. “In 2020, it was four days. I was told by the dealer that was the new normal.”

Rep. Lisa Reynolds, D-Portland, the bill’s other sponsor, acknowledged that the backlog is inconvenient. She said OSP has requested more staff to speed up the background check investigations.

“I think probably as legislators we do have to think about how we can get the support they need to put more people on this role that they are obligated to fulfill,” Reynolds said. “I think that would be a separate legislative act.”

The U.S. House passed a bipartisan bill in 2019 to close the Charleston Loophole. The bill suffered a similar fate to dozens of others and died in the Senate.

Absent federal action, a number of states have taken it upon themselves in recent years to close the loophole, but Oregon’s effort would be among the most stringent. California allows 30 days before a sale can go forward and Delaware allows 25 days.

If Oregon’s proposed bill is signed into law, it would join states like Florida and Utah where a sale is delayed indefinitely until a background check is finished.

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