Criminals and domestic abusers are prohibited from buying firearms, but in Washington State, loopholes in the law make it easy for them to get guns. This investigation reveals — for the first time — just how big those loopholes are.
While federal law requires brick-and-mortar gun stores to conduct background checks, people can go online — or to gun shows — and buy guns from strangers who are not licensed dealers, with no questions asked. This "private sale loophole" has grown exponentially since the Internet has become a vast virtual gun show, with hundreds of thousands of gun available for sale by unlicensed sellers at the click of a mouse.
This investigation shows that more than 40,000 of these unlicensed gun sales take place each year on just a handful of Washington websites, one corner of the vast online market.
And detailed criminal record research of the people seeking guns in these sales reveals that fully 1 in 10 is barred by state or federal law from owning guns.Download the report (2mb)
More than 1,100 Washington residents were murdered with guns in the last decade, and there were more than 4,400 gun-related suicides or accidents over the same period.
Much of this gun violence is perpetrated by people who are barred from possessing guns. People illegally possessing guns were responsible for at least 61 percent of gun murders of Washington law enforcement officers between 1980 and 2014.
Worryingly, measures of gun trafficking in the state are getting worse. Guns are likely trafficked if they show up at crime scenes less than two years after they were originally sold by a licensed gun dealer. Between 2006 and 2013, the share of guns used in crimes in Washington State that were likely trafficked increased by nearly 50 percent.
The federal background check system was established in 1998 to reduce gun trafficking and keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, and there is abundant evidence that it works. In Washington State alone over the past 16 years, the background check system has blocked more than 40,000 gun sales to prohibited people, including 24,000 to felons and 6,000 to people who were convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors or subject to domestic violence protection orders.
But the background check system is weakened by a fatal loophole: unlicensed gun sales — often online or at gun shows — are exempt from background checks. This makes it easy for dangerous people to get guns, and it puts all Washington residents at risk.
Everytown's investigation draws on data from gun ads that were publicly posted on a handful of major Washington classified websites — like Armslist.com, the self-described Craigslist for guns—which provide a forum for strangers to connect and arrange offline gun transfers. During a 20-week period, unlicensed sellers in Washington posted 16,739 gun ads on just five websites, a rate of more than 44,000 gun ads per year.
The investigation also shows that criminals are flocking to this market to evade the background check system and arm themselves. Detailed criminal record history on a sample of ad-posters indicates that nearly 1 in 10 prospective online gun buyers was prohibited from possessing a gun — including people charged with rape, domestic abusers, and people convicted of assaulting police officers.
At this rate, this handful of websites is on track to transfer more than 4,000 guns to prohibited people in Washington this year alone.
And the high concentration of prohibited people seeking guns online is further cause for concern. The share of people seeking guns in unlicensed online sales that are prohibited is 15 times higher than the share of would-be gun buyers at Washington gun dealers who turn out to be prohibited and are denied by the background check system. This suggests that criminals may be flocking to unlicensed sales because they know it allows them to evade a background check elsewhere.
On May 11, 2014, a man in King County posted an ad on Armslist seeking a 9mm handgun.
Police and court records reveal he has a thirty-year criminal history that prohibits him from buying a gun — but in an online unlicensed sale, there is no background check to stop him.
These loopholes contribute to the deaths of innocent Washington citizens like Monique Williams. The 29-year-old was working as a nurse in the Tri-Cities area of Washington and dating a man seven years older than her, Aaron Joe Newport.
Newport had been convicted of domestic violence assault in the past, and he was prohibited from buying firearms under both state and federal law. That didn’t stop him from trying to buy a gun from a licensed dealer—but when he underwent a background check it revealed that he was prohibited, and the sale was denied. The background check system worked.
But Newport knew how to exploit loopholes in the law, and police records show that he went online, where he found a .40 caliber Springfield XD handgun listed on Craigslist by an unlicensed seller. According to a friend who accompanied him, Newport arranged to meet the seller in a parking lot where he bought the gun with cash and without a background check.
After Williams tried to end her relationship with Newport, he broke into her house, assaulted her, and shot her in the head before taking his own life. The background check system failed Monique—and loopholes in the law continue to allow dangerous people like her killer to get guns.
Each year in Washington State, unlicensed sellers post more than 40,000 guns for sale online, no background checks required. Explore the data in this map to learn how many guns are being transferred without background checks in your county and how many are estimated to fall into dangerous hands.
Expanding and strengthening the background check system is the single most effective way to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. Sixteen states have passed legislation to go beyond federal law to ensure that would-be gun buyers undergo a background check whether they are buying a gun from an unlicensed seller or a brick-and-mortar dealer. And the legislation saves lives. In states that have adopted these requirements, there are:
There is an initiative on the ballot in Washington this year to require a criminal background check for every gun sale in Washington, with reasonable exceptions for family transfers, hunting and self-defense. Initiative 594 would expand the existing system to make sure that everyone buying a gun in Washington passes a criminal background check, no matter where they buy the gun and no matter who sells it to them.
Initiative 594 has widespread support from Washington voters and residents. Eight out of 10 Washington residents — as well as 74 percent of NRA members and 55 percent of licensed gun dealers — support requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales. It's the single most effective way to stop the flow of guns into the hands of dangerous people, and it's a law that would make all Washington residents safer.
Background checks make a difference. Washington voters can reduce crime and save lives by passing I-594.
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