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College Tragedy Raises Questions About Guns And Mass Killings

John Locher
A sign welcomes students back to Umpqua Community College, Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore.

Law enforcement officials say the weapons used by Chris Harper-Mercer in last week’s shooting at Umpqua Community College were lawfully purchased.

Celinez Nunez is the assistant special agent in charge for the Seattle field division of the ATF. She told reporters at a press conference in Roseburg last week that more than a dozen guns were found at the community college and the shooter’s apartment.

“Seven have been purchased by the shooter for a family member all within the last three years.”

Nunez says all of the weapons can be traced back to a federal firearms dealer.

Fewer Than One Percent Of Applicants Are Denied

Oregon law requires anyone who wants to purchase a firearm to pass a background check performed by the Oregon State Police. Officers check for felons, domestic abusers and those who have been deemed mentally ill by the courts.

In May, Gov. Kate Brown signed the Oregon Firearms Safety Act. The legislation expanded background checks from firearm dealers to include person-to-person sales.

At the bill signing ceremony, Gov. Brown called the law an important step toward keeping guns out of the hands of criminals.

Credit Rich Pedroncelli / AP
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown discusses the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, during a news conference Friday. In the background are Oregon's U.S. Sens., Ron Wyden, left, and Jeff Merkley.

“In the month of March alone, 193 people tried to buy guns in this state who were prohibited by law from having them, most of them convicted felons,” said Brown, citing data collected by the Oregon State Police.”

That same data showed more than 240,000 background checks for gun transactions since September of last year. Fewer than one percent of those were denied and ended up being investigated. The Oregon State Police did not return requests for comment.

What those numbers mean is the subject of debate.

Ron Louie is the former chief of police for the city of Hillsboro and now teaches criminal justice at Portland State University.

“The other 99 percent – are there people within that pool that perhaps should not own a gun but somehow have legally complied with the rules so to speak? That’s speculation and I just don’t know,” said Louie.

What Can Be Done?

He says he does not believe that Oregon’s new law would have prevented the shooter from purchasing guns. Louie in the camp that says more needs to be done to prevent guns from ending up in the hands of those wishing to do harm. But he is not in favor of expanding background checks to include things such as checking someone’s social media profile.

“The best way to do it is a loved one or a concerned person comes forward to identify somebody that may be potential and look at how much we should do about that understanding that we still have a constitution and our blessed civil liberties,” he says.

But others argue there are too many laws regulating guns and say more won’t help.

Kevin Starrett is the director of the Oregon Firearms Federation, a self-described Second Amendment advocacy organization.

“We pass laws because it makes somebody feel good, not because it makes any sense,” said Starrett. “They don’t work, we have a lot of gun laws, we have laws that at contradictory, we have laws that latterly make not sense – laughably make no sense.”

Since the mass shooting in Roseburg, concerns about potential violent attacks have disrupted classes at schools across Oregon.

On Friday, Southwest Oregon Community College and schools in the Coquille School District closed due to a reported threat, which was later discounted by law enforcement.

And on Monday, police evacuated Rogue Community College in Grants Pass, due to a possible bomb threat.