It’s 9:50 on a Wednesday night, in the Safeway parking lot on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. I’m looking into the passenger-side window of a gray Chevy Tahoe, with $160 in my fist.
In the back seat lies a green pillowcase. Inside that pillowcase is a loaded 9 mm handgun.
I want that gun.
I’m firearms shopping in Northeast Portland—not out of self-defense or vigilante delusions. I want to find out how easy it is to buy a gun on the streets. I’ve been at it for less than three hours, and now I could be moments away from getting one.
So far this year, gunfire police believe may have been gang-related has left eight people dead in Portland. Dozens more have been wounded, and the DA’s office says Portland is on track for its worst year of gang violence on record.
Community volunteers who work at the street level say better jobs, beefed-up school programs and expanded support for families should be top priorities for stopping the violence.
Mayor Sam Adams talks plenty about jobs and has pushed to give the city a bigger role in helping the schools. But on the gang front, his most high-profile campaign has pushed in a different direction: taking “illegal” guns off the street.
Last October, not long after 19-year-old Andre Payton was gunned down in Old Town, Adams held a press conference at the cop shop’s North Precinct and blamed illegal firearms.
Adams insisted that too much gang violence in Portland involves stolen guns, or guns in the hands of minors and convicted felons. There’s anecdotal evidence that’s the case, but the cops don’t keep stats to back up that statement.
That didn’t stop the mayor from forging ahead.
“My position is very, very clear,” Adams declared. “[We] intend to do everything we can to rid this community of illegal guns.”
Adams announced he was reassigning four police officers and a sergeant to work full time recovering stolen firearms and getting guns away from kids and criminals. And he pushed through City Council three new ordinances and two code changes aimed at keeping guns out of the wrong hands.
More on that later. In the meantime, I set out to see just how easy it is to buy a gun on the streets in the North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods hit heaviest by gang shootings.
I’m a white guy from inner Southeast. So I needed help.
Michael Johnson is a 43-year-old father of seven who normally wears a pressed white shirt and tie. On Sundays he’s a minister at the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church. On weekdays he runs Take III, a nonprofit gang-outreach group, out of his house in Northeast Portland.
Tall and lean with a closely shaved head, handsome grin and slightly crooked teeth, Johnson operates in two worlds. He regularly talks with the police and white bureaucrats like Adams. But he also has street cred.
Johnson was a founding member of the Columbia Villa Crips, one of the first black street gangs in Portland. His first tour through the state prison system was for lodging a bullet between a rival gang member’s heart and lung. The second was for armed robbery. The third was for attempted assault.
Six and a half years behind bars transformed Johnson. He found Jesus, took a job in a bottling company and became an ordained preacher in 2006.
Like other black Portlanders concerned about gang violence, Johnson is skeptical of Adams’ gun plan.
“Those laws don’t keep guns out of people’s hands. They don’t stop gun sales. They don’t stop anything,” Johnson says. “There’s a disconnect between City Hall and the community.”
Last month, he offered to help me learn how easy it still is to get a gun on the street. He’d accompany me while I made the purchase. Later, I planned to turn the gun over to police.
Without Johnson vouching for me, I stood little chance of buying a gun in gang territory. But with his felony record, Johnson still can’t legally touch a firearm. The purchase, and the gun, would be mine alone.
On the evening of July 13, Johnson comes dressed in an oversized white T-shirt, baggy jeans and Nikes. As we pile into my Honda sedan, Johnson says he’s nervous.
“I’ve been wearing suits,” he says. “I haven’t tried anything like this in a long time.”
Our first stop is at the corner of Northeast Mississippi Avenue and Killingsworth Street, a block away from the Portland Community College Cascade Campus. I pull over where a group of men is hanging out on the sidewalk. It’s 7:30 pm.
A pudgy guy in an Angels ball cap who reeks of cheap booze shuffles up to Johnson. “Shorty” is tattooed on the left side of his neck. He stumbles as he circles around, looking at me out of the corners of his bloodshot eyes.
“What you want?” he asks Johnson.
“A piece,” Johnson says.
A long string of mumbled banter ensues between Johnson and Shorty. In the end, Shorty offers to sell us a .32-caliber pistol for $200. He says it’s hidden in the bushes behind him.
“A tres-deuce? Naw,” Johnson objects. (Johnson later tells me the small-caliber .32 is “the kind of gun a woman might keep in her purse.”)
“She buck!” Shorty insists, throwing back his fist in a mock recoil. “Take a shot,” he says, offering to let us fire his gun down Mississippi Avenue.
We appreciate the offer, but Johnson insists $200 is way too much to pay. Shorty screws up his eyes, shrugs his shoulders and wanders back to his friends.
Within 15 minutes of starting our search, we’ve been offered a gun. We climb into my Accord and drive away.
It might seem that what we are doing—trying to buy a gun from a complete stranger with no ID—is breaking the law. It’s not.
Not here, and not in most other states. In fact, gun sales in Oregon can be about as casual as shopping at a farmers market.
Gun shops are required to check ID and perform a background check on buyers to look for felony convictions, domestic-violence prevention orders and mental-health records.
And Oregon is one of a handful of states that have closed the “gun-show loophole,” so all sales at gun shows also require a background check.
But for “person to person” gun sales, there’s no background check or ID required. You can sell a gun out of your garage or on the street—no questions asked. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 40 percent of American firearms sales happen that way.
Only California, Rhode Island, Chicago and Washington, D.C., require background checks for every firearm purchase. Maryland, Connecticut and Pennsylvania require background checks for all handgun sales. In Oregon, and elsewhere, person-to-person sales are wide open.
“That’s one of the reasons I give Oregon a B [for its gun laws],” says Kevin Starrett, head of the Oregon Firearms Federation.
Law enforcement and gun-control advocates say it also enables weapons to flow into the wrong hands. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tracks only the first time a gun is sold by an authorized dealer.
“It can be sold every day of the week for the next 10 years with no paperwork,” says Fred Weinhouse, who prosecutes federal gun crimes at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland.
Weinhouse outlines several ways firearms end up in the hands of minors and criminals. They can arrange a straw buyer at a gun shop. They can provide fake ID. But it’s much easier just to buy it on the street, like I’m trying to do.
Mayor Adams talks a lot about “illegal guns.” How many are out there? It’s a tricky question, because in the strictest sense, there’s no such thing as an illegal gun.
A gun might be stolen—that would make it illegal to possess, if the buyer knew that it was stolen. But that’s a hard case to make.
“How do you prove that someone knew an item was stolen?” asks Pat Callahan, a chief deputy district attorney for Multnomah County. “He pretty much has to admit it.”
Or a person can be ineligible to bear arms—like a felon, a minor or a dangerously insane person. But that makes the owner illegal, not the gun.
How many firearms in Portland are in the wrong hands? Remember, most guns fall off the grid after their first sale. The question brings belly laughs from law enforcement.
“I could not even guess,” says Sgt. Jami Resch, head of the Portland cops’ gun task force. “There are millions of guns in the country. You have to assume a fair share are in the hands of people who aren’t supposed to have them.”
A Duke University study in 2001 found that more than half a million guns are stolen each year in America. And a Justice Department survey found that 8.4 percent of prison inmates who wielded a gun during their crime obtained it illegally.
Basically, the only way I’d be breaking the law would be if the seller actually told me the gun was stolen. And that wasn’t going to happen.
Our next stop is Magoo’s, a bar on Northeast 42nd Avenue where Johnson tells me we might find what I’m looking for. We walk in shortly before 8 pm and drop 50 cents into the only pool table in the place.
I’d normally be drinking a beer. Tonight I opt for a turkey sandwich and water. While Johnson chats with the handful of patrons in the bar, I try to pick my pool shots. I’m a passable player, but distraction is my enemy. Tonight I scratch twice and leave three balls on the table.
A tall guy in a black ball cap and his girlfriend sit down in one corner. The man orders a beer, but the woman’s having nothing. Johnson knows the guy—a Blood who might be able to help us. The man is heavily tattooed, including a teardrop under his left eye.
Johnson motions for me to stay behind at the pool table while he walks over to the man. They hold a hushed conversation while I pretend to focus on my pool game.
Johnson returns about five minutes later. The man refused to help.
“He’s into something totally different now, getting himself together,” Johnson says. “He’s trying to make his way in life without being criminally active.”
Good for him, but it doesn’t help my search—which I’m worried will be as frustrating as Adams’ mission of taking guns off the street.
As police commissioner, Adams assigned a sergeant and four officers last October to work full time ridding the city of illegal firearms. Adams emphasized that meant stolen guns, and guns in the hands of children and felons.
Resch, the North Precinct sergeant and a 12-year veteran, was tapped to head the gun task force. A street sergeant from East Precinct, she has steel-blue eyes and a clipped voice.
Resch says her team tracks cases that might otherwise be forgotten. Say there’s a report of an armed man threatening people in a bar, or a man waving a gun at his wife. If the suspect disappears by the time regular cops arrive, those cases may go uninvestigated.
“We try to follow every lead as far as we can,” Resch says. “If we find out someone bought the gun from somebody else, we will try to find that person. We will trace a gun back as far as we can.”
In one recent case, Resch says, someone picked up by East Precinct officers said they had information about a burglary in Vancouver where firearms were stolen. The gun team followed up, found the victim, and eventually arrested four suspects. They recovered seven of the nine guns stolen from the house. They’d been sold all over the metro area, in Clackamas, Washington, Multnomah and Clark counties.
It’s clear Resch’s team has a difficult task in a city Adams says is “awash” in illegal guns. And the team is watched closely by City Hall and the chief’s office, says Lt. Tom McGranahan, head of police tactical operations. He insists they’ve performed well in a tough environment.
Nine-plus months after Adams started the team, the Police Bureau says it’s confiscated a total of 132 illegal guns.
That’s approximately one gun every other day for the five-member team, or one gun every 12 days for each member of the team.
Meanwhile, the city has spent at least $192,000 on those cops’ collective salaries. That’s at least $1,450 for each gun taken from the wrong hands.
The gun task force made its biggest score July 9 when, acting on a tip, they busted into convicted felon Dohnald Hartman’s home in Clackamas County and seized 17 handguns, rifles and shotguns.
Locking up a truck driver from Milwaukie is pretty far from the kind of gang-busting work Adams talked about when he launched the gun team. But his cops didn’t miss the opportunity to call a press conference and tout the case.
“This gentleman is the poster child for the purpose of the gun task force,” Assistant Chief Eric Hendricks told TV cameras. “The public is safer as a result.”
And what about Adams’ five new gun laws?
They punish adults who let their guns get into a child’s hands, penalize owners who don’t report firearm thefts, exclude gun offenders from shooting hot spots, establish curfews for child gun offenders and set a minimum 30 days in jail for convicted gun offenders caught with a loaded firearm.
The outcome eight months later? Fred Lenszer, a Multnomah County deputy district attorney, says no one’s been prosecuted under the new misdemeanor crime Adams created. And only 13 people have been excluded from the hot spots.
Adams insists the police task force and new laws are paying off. And he says his focus on guns hasn’t detracted from his anti-gang work in other areas, like jobs and education.
“The amount of lives saved by getting those guns off the street, to me, and to most Portlanders, I think, is worth it,” Adams says. “When you can go to the Quickie Mart and buy an illegal gun on just a random night, it shows how bad the problem is.”
And that’s exactly what I was trying to do.
It’s 9:10 pm. Johnson and I drive to the Safeway parking lot on the corner of Ainsworth and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
The southwest corner of the lot faces Quick Trip, a convenience store where Johnson says many gangbangers and wannabes buy their blunts.
Men in baggy shorts and ball caps shuttle in and out of the shop. Johnson steps out of my car and walks past a smoke-gray Chevy Tahoe parked directly in front of me.
A young black man with a ‘fro-hawk hairdo and a long-sleeved white T-shirt behind the wheel of the Tahoe catches Johnson’s eye as Johnson steps past the door of the SUV.
“You looking?” the man asks. Johnson nods.
“A whammy,” Johnson replies.
The man glances at me warily. His friend arrives back at the Tahoe carrying a bag of blunts from the Quick Trip. Johnson assures them both that they don’t need to worry about me. We work out a deal. The driver will sell me what I want for $150. They’ll run home and come back with it. We agree to wait, and the Tahoe heads north on MLK.
Two minutes after pulling into the Safeway parking lot, we’ve arranged to buy a 9 mm handgun.
The seller told us he’d be back in 20 minutes. It takes twice that long. We pass the time munching Doritos and gulping iced tea in my car. Both of us have shaky hands.
At 9:50, the Tahoe returns. It reeks of marijuana smoke.
The driver reaches into the back seat, where empty Vitaminwater bottles lay discarded next to a vacant child safety seat. Among the bottles is a dirty pillowcase. The driver lifts it into the front seat, unfolds it, and pulls out a black handgun and a clip with seven bullets inside.
I lift the gun. It’s heavier than I expected. The driver folds it back inside the pillowcase, along with the loaded clip, and hands me the bundle. I hand over $160 (he doesn’t have change for my $20 bills), and I ask the driver how many guns he has sold. “Too many.” Where did he get this one? “On Killingsworth.” Does he ever ask the buyers why they want a gun?
“That ain’t my business,” he says. “I grab it, and if somebody else needs it, I give it to them.”
The Tahoe pulls away at 10 pm. My heart is still pounding, my legs numbed by adrenaline. It just took me less than three hours to buy a gun in Portland. I could have been anyone—a felon, a kid or a gang member.
“On the street,” Johnson says, “if you know what you want and you are determined, you will find it.”
Oregon Gun Laws: How Do We Stack Up?
Before she was mayor of Portland, Vera Katz was speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives. She can take credit for passing the law that first required background checks for guns in Oregon. She is also responsible for the explosion in concealed-weapons permits.
In 1989, Katz, a Democrat, helped pass a law requiring background checks for gun-store purchases. But in a deal with the National Rifle Association, she also made Oregon a “shall-issue state” for concealed-handgun licenses. That means the state must issue a permit if a person qualifies.
Before that law, there were fewer than 20 concealed-weapons permits in Multnomah County. Now there are more than 19,000. So began Oregon’s modern path to being a mediocre state for gun control.
The gun lobby’s next win came in 1995, when the NRA leaned on the Legislature to pass a “pre-emption” law. It forbids local governments from passing laws on buying or carrying guns. Such decisions are left to the state. That’s why Adams’ city gun ordinances are so tame: It was the most he could accomplish.
Now Oregon ranks 29th out of the 50 states for gun deaths per capita. Roughly one Oregonian every day is killed by a firearm. About 80 percent of those deaths are suicides.
What could Oregon do? It could ban the sale of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. It could license and regulate firearms dealers at the state level, limit the number of guns bought at one time, or impose a waiting period. Or even join California and require a background check for every gun purchased.
Jimmy’s Got His Gun
I was sold a Stallard Arms JS-9 mm handgun. In online gun forums, the model has been described as “a genuine piece of junk,” “clunky piles of pot metal” and “like bad cartoon drawings of guns (Dick Tracy).”
According to GunBroker.com, it’s worth $90 at best.
It weighs a little less than 2½ pounds and was manufactured in Mansfield, Ohio, between 1990 and 1998. The serial number is 055378.
I wanted to find out who else had owned the gun, and whether it was reported stolen. But the ATF refused to trace the serial number, saying they don’t perform that service for the public. The Portland cops also refused unless I filed a police report.
I have never owned a gun before. It still sits in my apartment closet.
I plan to give it to the police at the next city-sponsored gun turn-in event, which Mayor Sam Adams says will probably happen this September.
The police gun task force takes a gun off the streets every two days, at a cost of more than $1,400 in taxpayer money. In less than three hours, I’d accomplished the same thing for $160.