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Oregon College Tragedy Raises Questions About Guns

John Sepulvado/OPB
A couple of semi-automatic weapons at the Roseburg Gun Shop.

The White House says President Obama will travel to Roseburg on Friday to meet privately with the families of people who died in last week’s shooting.

The politics surrounding gun violence began almost immediately after the tragedy at Umpqua Community College where 10 died and another nine were injured.

Federal officials say the weapons used in the shooting were purchased legally. And that’s raising questions about what more could be done to prevent mass killings. 

“They were all purchased legally, yes,” said Celinez Nunez, the assistant special agent in charge for the Seattle field division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. 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,” she said.

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

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, Brown called the law an important step toward keeping guns out of the hand of criminals.

“Oregon State Police data on gun transactions indicates 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,” she said.

Oregon State Police did not return requests for comment.

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.

What those numbers mean is the subject of debate.

“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?” asked Ron Louie, the former chief of police for the city of Hillsboro and now teaches criminal justice at Portland State University. “That’s speculation and I just don’t know.”

Would Oregon’s new law have prevented the shooter from purchasing guns in Oregon?

“I don’t believe so,” Louie said.

Louie is 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’s 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 said.

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

“We pass laws because it makes somebody feel good, not because it makes any sense,” said Kevin Starrett, the director of the Oregon Firearms Federation, a self-described Second Amendment advocacy organization.

“They don’t work, we have a lot of gun laws, we have laws that are contradictory, we have laws that utterly make no sense – laughably make no sense,” Starrett said.

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. It was later discounted by law enforcement. And just Monday, police evacuated Rogue Community College in Grants Pass, due to a possible bomb threat.

OPB’s Rob Manning and Tony Schick contributed to this story.

Copyright 2015 OPB