Report: Unlicensed Gun Sales Booming in Maine

Sep 8, 2016

New research from supporters of Question 3 on the November ballot finds that unlicensed gun sales are flourishing in Maine through classified and online advertisements in publications such as Uncle Henry’s and Armslist.com.

The four-year analysis conservatively estimates that 3,000 unlicensed gun sales take place in Maine each year. But there’s disagreement about whether requiring background checks for nearly all gun sales and transfers would help put a stop to gun violence.

The ads in Uncle Henry’s and on the website Armslist.com are perfectly legal: everything from AK-47s and 9mm semiautomatic handguns to 16-gauge shotguns. Some are offered by licensed dealers and require a background check for purchase, but many are posted by unlicensed sellers.

Jonas Oransky, an attorney for Everytown for Gun Safety, says that’s a problem. It represents a massive loophole in laws designed to prevent certain people from buying guns in the first place.

“So a convicted felon, a convicted domestic abuser or someone under a final restraining order, all of these folks that we have decided as a society are too dangerous to have guns, these folks can simply find an unlicensed seller and skip the entire enforcement process,” he says.

Looking at nearly four years of ads starting in 2012, a team of researchers from the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund found that Uncle Henry’s printed about 8,400 ads for guns from more than 4,400 unlicensed sellers. Armslist.com posted more than 700 over the last two years.

Research director Sarah Tofte says her team excluded “want-to-buy” ads, ads that were for ammunition or accessories or that included a phone number that matched that of a licensed gun dealer. But she says the actual number of unlicensed gun sales in Maine is likely much higher.

“This report certainly doesn’t encompass all venues or all ways in which unlicensed sales may be taking place in Maine, but it gives us some sense of the extent of the market,” she says.

Previous research done by the group in other states suggests that 1 in 10 interested, online gun buyers has a criminal history that bars them from purchasing or possessing guns under federal law.

The report says evidence shows that background checks reduce gun deaths. Also, states with background checks — and there are 18 of them now — have more than 50 percent fewer mass shootings.

But, the report also says that Maine is already a safe state, and that’s a fact that Kevin Webb of Uncle Henry’s says shouldn’t be overlooked. Nor, he says, should the fact that background checks can’t prevent the kind of tragedy that happened last Fall in the parking lot of a Bath supermarket.

“Someone met to sell a firearm to another individual. In the process, the individual whose gun it was fired inadvertently and killed somebody, killed his girlfriend. And that’s a tragedy, I understand that. But at the same time, that could have happened whether or not he was selling the gun. It has nothing to do with an unlicensed sale,” he says.

Webb says he agrees that more should be done to prevent dangerous criminals from buying or trading guns. But he doesn’t think background checks for nearly all gun sales and transfers is the solution. In his view, it puts another burden on those who already follow the law.

“There’s a $25-$50 fee for every one of those background checks that gets run, so now you’re forcing law-abiding citizens to pay a substantial increase in cost to enforce a law that may or not have any effect,” he says.

As for revenue that Uncle Henry’s gets from advertisements for guns, Webb says it’s not as significant as some other categories in the publication, like automotive and pets. But if Question 3 is passed, he says the magazine will look at tightening rules for how guns are advertised for sale.