Expanded Gun Background Checks Effective in Oregon—But Not Washington State: Study

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Photo by Rod Waddington via Flickr.

The neighboring states of Washington and Oregon had starkly different rates of compliance with expanded comprehensive background check (CBC) laws on private gun purchases, according to a University of California, Davis study.

State laws in Washington (2014) and Oregon  (2015) extended  existing background check requirements to private purchases of handguns. Washington, for example required all private sales of firearms to be conducted through a federally licensed firearms dealer, who in turn conducts the check.

But the study by the University of California Davis Violence Prevention Research program found that pre-firearm checks for private sales increased by only 4 percent between January 1999 nd December, 2018.

In contrast, a similar statute in Oregon resulted in an 18 percent increase in such checks over the same period.

The study authors did not offer conclusive reasons for the difference, suggesting that Washington State’s figures represented a “gradual” accommodation with the new regulations.

“The new laws may have had effects that we were unable to measure or detect,” said the study.

Extended CBC laws are considered a crucial step in closing loopholes in gun oversight laws. In states without such policies, around 57 percent of private gun sales or transfers occur without background checks. In CBC-compliant states, that number drops to 26 percent.

Gun purchasers with questionable background—such as previous convictions—can take advantage of the loophole by buying their firearms from private gun sellers.

Despite the low CBC rates, Washington has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation. In July, 2017 it became the first state to require police to notify domestic abuse survivors if their abuser attempts a gun purchase, part of so-called “lie-and try” legislation aimed at cracking down on gun buyers who conceal their criminal histories when filling out background checks, according to Trace.

The 2014 law came as a result of a voter initiative, reflecting widespread support for gun control measures among state representatives. And this week, state legislators announced they planned even tougher measures, including banning the sale of assault weapons, limiting  high-capacity magazines to 10-rounds, and adding background checks on ammunition sales. The announcements were in response to a spate of shootings in the state involving assault weapons.

Washington is 38th in the 50-state ranking of firearm deaths between 2008-2017, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress (CAP).

Nevertheless, between 2014 and 2018, Washington experienced 18 mass shootings, with 36 people killed and 48 injured. According to CAP figures, both gun theft and gun suicides are significant problems, with nearly 48,000 firearms stolen from individual gun owners and gun dealers between 2012 and 2017,

In one example cited by legislators, three teenagers died in 2016  after a gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at a house party in the town of Mukilteo, Wa.

“I am sick and tired of the seemingly non-stop incidents of gun violence in this country,” said state Sen. Patty Kuderer, a Democrat from Bellevue, Wa.,  “We are the only country in the world where mass shootings happen with this regularity. We also have the most lax gun laws of any country in the western world.

“That is not a coincidence. Enough is enough.”

Kuderer said the proposed new legislation “will interrupt this cycle of violence….and save lives.”

Nevertheless, the low compliance figures in Washington raise questions about the effectiveness of even expanded CBC laws.

In contrast to the CBC statutes, the US Davis authors cited research showing Permit to Purchase (PTP) laws, which require handgun purchasers to apply for purchase permits directly to law enforcement, “have been associated with reduced firearm homicides and suicides.”

“Further research will be needed to determine whether newly enacted CBC laws in our study states and Vermont [which passed similar laws in 2018] are associated with similar benefits.

The UC Davis study was prepared by Alvaro Castillo-Carniglia, Daniel M. Webster and Garen J. Wintermute, and published in the Journal of Injury Epidemiology.

Read the full study here.

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