How a UMass student bought a gun without I.D.

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Editor’s Note: Daniel Entrikin is a University of Massachusetts student working on a documentary about firearm legislation. He submitted this feature story, based on his own independent research, to The Collegian for publication. Both Entrikin and The Collegian welcome opposing viewpoints.

I bought a gun in October. I paid cash for it. I didn’t show any identification. I told the guy my first name, and we shook hands. I put it in my trunk and drove off. I’ve been thinking about that day, especially in light of multiple firearms arrests recently on the
University of Massachusetts campus.

On December 3, a UMass student from Virginia was arrested on campus with a loaded, unlicensed handgun, as well as drugs and an electronic scale, according to police.

And less than two weeks ago, a man was arrested on campus with a loaded, unlicensed handgun, police said. The suspect also allegedly possessed drugs. The serial number on the firearm was filed off, making it untraceable, officials said.

I am a senior communication major at UMass, and am working on a film about gun laws. Those fliers around campus highlighting these incidents? Those are mine. I’m taking a stance on this issue, but I’ve been doing my homework. Here’s what I’ve found:

Mass shootings are a far too common occurrence in the United States. In March and April of 2009 alone, such shootings claimed 53 lives, according to the Associated Press. It seems as if every other week the details of another terrible shooting emerge. After the Columbine tragedy, Americans have unfortunately become desensitized to the horrors of these events.

We are the most heavily armed nation in the world, with 90 guns for every 100 people, according to Reuters. The U.S. Department of Justice figures show that in 2005, 11,346 Americans died from gun violence.

Guns have a distinct role in our society, as they should. The Second Amendment protects the rights of citizens to keep and bear arms.

Watch | An excerpt from Entrikin’s film “Loophole.”

However, these rights are not absolute, and some citizens lose them. Persons convicted of a felony or involuntarily committed to a mental institution are among those that cannot legally own guns. Through the existing National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), as well as mental health databases, licensed gun dealers legally must screen every buyer for prohibited status.

There is another way to buy guns legally. Private sellers, found in large concentrations at public gun shows, are not required by law to run background checks. They have no license or qualifications. Any legal gun owner can be a private seller. They need proof that you live in-state, and are of age to own a gun. That is all.

Consider a hypothetical scenario: I am an escaped mental patient. I want a gun. I cannot find a way to obtain a gun on the black market. A gang member would never trust me; my appearance is too suspicious. I know a visit to a gun store will uncover my mental health history and alert authorities. Instead, I visit a gun show in my home state, and with an ID, purchase a gun in a private sale. The same sale that is illegal at a gun store is completed easily and legally at a gun show.

You may be asking “Why should I believe you? This seems far fetched.”

To answer this question, I visited two New Hampshire gun shows last year. I bought a double-barreled shotgun from another attendee for cash only. When he neglected to check my ID, he committed a federal felony. More undercover presence from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) at shows would make private sellers less likely to violate the law like this. The laws are often broken by private sellers, but a background check is still not required in such a sale, demonstrated in the majority of U.S. states.

I could have been a crack dealer with a felony murder conviction. I could have been schizophrenic. I could be a wanted terrorist on the national do-not-fly list. But, the seller didn’t know, because he was not required to check.

A caveat: Do not think of imitating what I did. ATF agents are already undercover and felony firearms offenses carry serious prison sentences. I sought legal counsel long before I conducted this investigation. If I came into Massachusetts with that firearm, I would have committed a felony, and I could be in jail right now.

Suppose the December 3 campus suspect is convicted of felony gun possession. In his home state, he could buy the same handgun from a gun show with his prohibitive criminal record left unexamined.

The NICS system is as simple as a phone call. While not perfect, cross-database inquiries detect most serious issues that stop sales. Most of the failures of background checks are due to poor information sharing between agencies.

The Virginia Tech shooter bought a gun from a store and passed a background check because of a database failure, which the state of Virginia has since fixed. Though, privacy need not be an issue as the check can be issued on a pass/fail basis with no unnecessary details about the buyer revealed to the seller.

The background check system can easily accommodate private sellers. All they need to do is use it.

In the House of Representatives, The Gun Show Loophole Closing Act of 2009 (H.R. 2324) would require background checks for all sales at shows nationwide. Though, the legislation still awaits a vote. If the Act passes, an escaped mental patient would be red-flagged, referred to authorities and taken back into custody. Until it passes, that person can walk out of a show with a gun just as easily as an avid hunter with a clean record, or as I did.  It is important to alert your Representatives of the importance of the Act being passed.

Mandatory background checks would present an inconvenience to law-abiding citizens that would save lives.

Support for the Act divides simply – anyone that can pass a background check should support this bill. If you can’t pass a background check, or make money selling guns to people that can’t, you should oppose it.

I have been researching this topic for some time now, for coursework and out of my own concern. My upcoming documentary “Loophole” will engage this important public safety issue in more depth.

In December, and again in February, the lax laws of other states put our campus in danger. Massachusetts has strict gun laws, and has essentially closed the loophole. However, that is severely undermined when easy access to guns is but a short drive away. According to the Boston Globe, firearms from New Hampshire gun shows are in high demand among gang members on the streets of Boston. Action on the federal level is crucial for abrupt change. Even in a bitterly divided political climate, selling guns to criminals and the dangerously mentally ill is something we can all agree is morally wrong.

I turned my weapon in to local police. I committed no crime. I chose to expose the loophole, rather than take predatory advantage of it. Unfortunately, I fear that not everyone makes the same choice.