WASHINGTON – As President Obama tries to more closely regulate gun sales, hundreds of handguns remain legally available in Minnesota with no scrutiny or disclosures and no change in sight.
Late Monday afternoon, a single online advertising site, Armslist.com, showed 380 handguns for sale from private parties in Minnesota. A week ago, when Obama first laid out plans for more gun control, the number was 298 on the Internet site, which facilitates gun sales between Minnesotans without criminal background checks.
Obama is expected to make background checks of firearms buyers a talking point Tuesday night in his final State of the Union speech. But the spike in traffic on Armslist.com demonstrates the challenge that faces the president in Minnesota and nationwide.
A central element of Obama’s plan is to classify some people who sell a few weapons a year — whether online, at gun shows or elsewhere — as proprietors instead of hobbyists. This would make their gun sales subject to background checks.
But unless the government can figure out an effective way to enforce that, many of the unregulated sales that take place today are likely to continue.
In the United States, guns are easy to come by without anyone asking whether you are legally allowed to own them or even asking for your name.
Private gun sales between individuals in the same state are not heavily regulated. For instance, Minnesota law says people transferring ownership of pistols or assault weapons must send information about the buyer to local law enforcement for background checks.
However, the law then exempts transfers made by “a person other than a federally licensed firearms dealer.” This opens the way to legal gun sales without any exchange of information.
Enforcement a tall order
Some experts think Obama’s success in imposing new controls on gun sales depends largely on his ability to get more people licensed as firearms dealers. That will produce more mandatory background checks and also solve a Catch-22. Under current law, private sellers willing to collect information on buyers cannot access the country’s instant background check system.
Still, what the president envisions is a tall order.
“I don’t see anything in the proposals that are going to hurt anybody,” said Kory Krause, the owner of Frontiersman Sports, a gun shop in St. Louis Park that has been in business since 1967.
Krause, who holds federal licenses to sell all kinds of firearms and accessories, including machine guns and silencers, expects an uptick in business as a result of the president’s actions. Krause already is conducting background checks, not only for local customers, but for people who order weapons out-of-state from online dealers.
Buyers who purchase across state lines must have weapons shipped to a federally licensed firearms dealer who charges the buyer a fee to conduct a background check and holds the firearm until law enforcement officials complete the check.
That’s not the case for intrastate sales between private parties, the kind often arranged online or at any of the dozens of gun shows across Minnesota every year. Those private sales, said Krause, legally may be anonymous “cash and carry.”
Along with online classifieds, the gun show business in Minnesota is thriving, in part because of this exception.
Obama’s efforts to curb sales will only increase business, predicted Jim Wright, whose company, Crocodile Productions, is Minnesota’s largest promoter of gun shows.
“Dealer space is at a premium,” said Wright, who puts on 20 gun shows a year, most in the Twin Cities area.
Wright doesn’t “foresee any issues” with Obama’s gun control initiative “other than turning dealers away” because he has no space. News of the president’s intention to take executive action doubled attendance at Crocodile’s most recent gun show, Wright said. He expects the numbers to keep going up.
Wright encourages gun sellers at his shows to ask buyers to identify themselves and show permits, if necessary, for the guns they purchase. But he also points out that guns used in recent U.S. mass shootings came from federally licensed firearms dealers, not unlicensed private sellers.
Wright estimates that the majority of those selling weapons at his shows hold federal licenses, though he cannot say how many. Licensed or not, he cannot say what kind of screening any of the sellers do or the number of guns they sell.
“They’re not required to report their sales to me,” Wright said. “So I have no idea who sells what or how many.”
The secrecy surrounding gun sales makes it almost impossible to determine the size of the Minnesota’s firearms industry. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) reports that the state had 2,646 federal firearms licensees in 2015 out of a national total of 138,659. In comparison, the state’s eastern neighbor, Wisconsin, had 3,105 and its southern neighbor, Iowa, had 2,163.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a lobbying group, says the arms and ammunition industry provides more than 4,600 jobs in Minnesota and pays nearly $300 million in wages. But neither the ATF nor the shooting sports foundation lists the number of guns sold in the state each year or their dollar value. The state budget office also had no sales figures.
In a country that manufactured more than 10 million pistols, revolvers, rifles and shotguns in 2013 alone, the sales numbers are likely significant.
The flood of weapons in America is one reason the White House warned that “a person can be engaged in the business of dealing in firearms even if the person only conducts firearm transactions at gun shows or through the Internet. Those engaged in the business of dealing in firearms who utilize the Internet or other technologies must obtain a license, just as a dealer whose business is run out of a traditional brick-and-mortar store.”
Threatening prosecutions that could include up to five years in prison and fines up to $250,000, the White House said “courts have upheld convictions for dealing without a license when as few as two firearms were sold or when only one or two transactions took place, when other factors also were present.”
Making good on the president’s tough talk demands an enforcement effort.
Krause says his employees have seen Frontiersman Sports customers at gun shows reselling weapons purchased earlier at his shop. Those guns can sometimes be sold at a markup because of the ease of purchase, Krause said. And private sellers sometimes carry inventory from show to show.
“If you’ve got a guy with a dozen guns with price tags and he’s going to every show, that’s not going to be prosecuted under current rules,” Krause said. The government is “going to have to follow through” on its monitoring of unlicensed gun sellers to make an impact, Krause believes.
In the St. Paul region, which includes Minnesota, the Dakotas and Wisconsin, ATF employs 79 investigators who work with 34 local task force officers, said spokesman Martin Sibenaler.
He said that those investigators look for things like online sellers who repeatedly offer weapons for sale and whether their profits constitute a “livelihood.” But Sibenaler stressed that the president’s new initiative does not change existing laws and likely will not change existing investigative practices.
“I can’t see how we would conduct ourselves differently,” he said.
Private sales unchecked
For now, it appears private sales without information sharing will continue to be legal for many types of guns in thousands of transactions per year in Minnesota.
Online and at gun shows, sellers and buyers will settle on how much detail is necessary to consummate a purchase. Some sellers now ask buyers to have state-issued permits to purchase or permits to carry. Others do not.
A recent online ad for a pair of semi-automatic pistols with multiple magazines holding 30 rounds and 50 rounds of ammunition specified no need for a permit or a background check.
This brand of weaponry was originally limited to military and law enforcement use, but has since been offered to civilians over the protests of gun control groups. For $2,200 the two pistols can apparently be bought in a legal private sale between Minnesotans.
While that kind of anonymity puts the president’s initiative at risk, it is important to some gun buyers. A recent Armslist Minnesota solicitation to buy Glock pistols and AK 47 rifles specified: “I’m only interested in face-to-face simple cash sales without any paperwork. I value my privacy.”