Shootings alarm residents, police and gun control advocates
By Mindy Cooper/The Portland Observer
A deadly wave of recent gang violence, including multiple shootings from city streets and other public places, has alarmed residents, police and gun control advocates.
According to Sgt. Pete Simpson, information officer for the Portland Police Bureau, the city has had 60 gang-related shootings so far this year, up from 48 at the same time last year. Since July 4, there have been nine shootings reported to Portland police.
Although the carnage comes as no surprise to Simpson, who said Portland gang and youth violence has risen steadily since 2007, he said preventing guns from landing in the wrongs hands is one of the many necessary prevention efforts in the battle over gangs.
“We need responsible gun ownership, which means locking guns up, not leaving them in cars, and having serial numbers ready to report if it gets stolen,” said Simpson. “And that is what the majority of gun owners do, but it is the people who are getting the guns illegally that are the problem.”
Simpson said there are a variety of methods guns are attained illegally, from thefts to trading drugs for them.
Within Multnomah County, there is a police Gang Task Force, which was reinstated and reformed in 2011 to curb the rise in illegal weaponry. Last year, they seized 153 handguns and 102 rifles or shotguns.
The focus is to get guns out of the hands of criminals and juveniles who cannot legally possess them, Simpson said.
According to Penny Okamoto, executive director for the non-profit Cease Fire Oregon, the number of deaths by guns in the state has outpaced the number of people who die in car accidents.
Reducing gun violence is the goal of Ceasefire Oregon, which works with law enforcement to hold gun turn-ins for cash events.
“We reason, educate, legislate,” said Okamoto, who added that the number of guns within Oregon varies by county. “Some counties are 25 percent of households, and others are as high as 80 percent.”
She said Oregon law encourages, but doesn’t require, gun registration. There is a license needed to carry a concealed handgun, however, which applies if you are going to keep a firearm in your car, purse, or in places such as under your jacket, she said.
Although there are well over 130,000 people in Oregon who have concealed handgun licenses, she said there is no way to know how many regularly possess or carry a gun.
A legal and responsible way of going about getting a firearm is going to a federally licensed firearm dealer, Okamoto said, adding that most gun shops and gun shows, which sell more than 25 guns, are required to obtain the commercial license.
“People can go in there, and the dealer is actually going to perform a background check on who is buying a gun. They call the Oregon State Police to see if the person is a felon, has any warrants, and see if there are any restraining orders or domestic violence problems,” she said.
Licensed dealers also see if a person is of age. In the state of Oregon, you must be 18-years-old to buy a long gun, which is basically a rifle, and 21-years-old to buy a handgun or an assault weapon.
Okamoto said so-called kitchen table or private sales, such as purchases on Craig’s List, bypass any background check requirements as long as the seller is dealing in fewer than 25 firearms, something she calls a problem because criminals can get guns with no questions asked.
“You do not need to do a background check for that. People can, but it costs money with a small fee,” she said.
Another way to get a gun is known as a ‘straw’ or ‘straw man’ purchase. It happens when someone with a clean record is paid to purchase a gun for someone else.
“Say you have got someone who is 22-years-old with a clean record and needs to make some money. Give this person money and have them go into a dealer and buy 200 guns,” she said. “The person walks out with as many guns as the person wants, and it is completely legal.”
Simpson said state laws and local ordinances controlling firearms are good and helpful, but there is such a prevalence of firearms in the community, it is difficult for them to have a major impact.
“Our goal is to make it harder to get a gun if a criminal or juvenile,” he said. “The laws are effective, but you have to have enough people to enforce them, and the sheer number of guns makes it difficult to know all the different avenues they can be used within the community.”
In 2010, in an effort to curb the rate of gun violence within the city, Portland Mayor Sam Adams worked to pass five ordinances involving gun safety.
The local laws addressed the endangerment of a child by allowing access to a firearm; increased the consequences for the failure to report a lost or stolen firearm; enhanced sentences for the possession of a loaded firearm in a public place; increased the crackdown on youth curfew; and forbid the use of illegal firearms in designated neighborhood “hotspots.”
Police say the ordinances have a direct impact on the pervasiveness of guns within the community, but Okamoto said these kinds of laws should be statewide, if not nationwide.
“What the gun control movement knows is once you put requirements in one county, the gun dealer’s move out of that county to a different county, where they know they don’t have to worry about that law,” she said.
Okatmoto said she would like to see more enforcement of the child access prevention ordinance, in an effort to prevent older gang members from furnishing weapons to gang members who are minors.
“Get them away from messing with these kids and messing with their lives,” she said. “These guys are not going to stop because it is illegal. Murder is illegal, but people commit is every day. But if you don’t make a law against it, then no one would ever worry about retribution.”
She would also like to see a background check for every gun sold.
Simpson sees the biggest impact on the reduction of youth violence beginning with the family.
“Strong families can prevent kids from becoming gang members. Police have really low impact on whether or not a child will become a gang member,” he said. “But if a 5 or 6 year old grows up in a home where gang violence is accepted by the family, it is incredibly likely they will become a gang member themselves.”
He also said the gun can’t be blamed for the high level of violence within Portland. “It is like blaming spoons for obesity. There is a human element here that is at work that is complicit to getting guns into the hands of youth,” he said. “Guns are not the problem. Lawful, legal gun ownership is not the problem. The problem is the guns that flow into the hands of people who should not have them.”
The biggest hope, he said, is that parents will be more vigilant with their children, who are vulnerable to gang lifestyles. “Waiting for someone else to fix the problem is not going to help. The single biggest impact to curb the rising rate of gang violence is going to be family,” he said.
Okamoto agreed. “We need to get our children educated, not just about gun violence, we need to get them into good schools and college to give them a chance, so they aren’t going to join gangs,” she said.
Ceasefire sponsors their next collection of unwanted firearms on Saturday, Aug.18, from 10 to 2 p.m. at the north side of Memorial Coliseum, in the Rose Quarter parking lot off North Benton Avenue.