About 23 percent of Brown County adults hold licenses to carry a handgun — up 2 percent from 2014, and the highest percentage in the state, according to the Indiana State Police.
For many Brown Countians, President Barack Obama’s recent statements about private firearm transactions and background checks could raise alarm.
Yet, with the exception of fully automatic and short-barreled weapons, there is no real change to the current policies, said Suzanne Dabkowski, a public information officer for the Columbus, Ohio-based Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms region that includes southern Indiana.
The president’s executive order won’t change the standards for firearm sales and transfers between people who don’t hold federal firearms licenses, or in the enforcement of those rules, either, she said.
“No, there’s not an actual change,” Dabkowski said. “The definition of ‘engaged in a business’ has not changed.”
Finding the line
During a town hall meeting broadcast live from Fairfax, Virginia, Jan. 7, the president said he wants to close “loopholes” in the background check system.
He followed that with statements about guns purchased from private sellers at gun shows. Those are often referred to as a loophole, and so it was not long before concerns surfaced that Obama intended to go beyond enforcing rules already on the books.
Some people who sell firearms privately may not be fully aware of where the line is between a legal and an illegal transaction, Dabkowski said.
Anyone who makes a profit from transferring firearms and is not a licensed dealer is violating federal law, Dabkowski said.
It is also illegal to transfer a gun to someone — even at a loss — if the intent is to avoid a background check, or to furnish a weapon to someone who could not have legally purchased a gun themselves.
But it can be complicated.
If someone buys a firearm on behalf of a friend who could not be present but could have legally bought it himself, is that illegal? Dabkowski hesitated to say whether it would fall under exceptions made for gifts or be considered an illegal straw purchase.
There is no harm in asking questions, Dabkowski said. If a buyer or seller has doubts, they should contact their local ATF branch office for guidance before making a transaction.
And they can always have a background check run at a federally licensed firearms dealer to make certain a private transaction is legal, she said.
Rick Hawley is an owner of Buck Shot Sporting Goods in Nashville.
He said if someone who isn’t a licensed gun dealer wants to transfer a firearm using a dealer for the background check, the typical fee is about $20. But that cost can vary, as the dealer has to keep the original background check form on file for 20 years.
It’s the same process used when a person buys a firearm online. As required by federal law, it’s shipped to a gun dealer, where a background check then has to be processed, Hawley said.
How guns move
In his town hall meeting, Obama cited concerns over guns moving illegally from states with less restrictive laws to states with more restrictive laws as motivation for looking more closely at private sales.
Specifically, he said guns can be purchased from private sellers at gun shows without background checks in Indiana, then taken across the border to Illinois.
Brown County Sheriff Scott Southerland said firearms are rarely recovered from criminal activities in Brown County because they were stolen or because deputies encounter them in connection with other crimes.
When they are recovered, or when a firearm is reported stolen, the sheriff’s office enters the serial number and descriptive information into the ATF’s trace system, which attempts to track firearms.
In one case, firearms taken in a burglary in Brown County were traded for drugs in Indianapolis, Southerland said. The guns were ultimately recovered in Detroit, Michigan.
In every state, the majority of weapons recovered and traced by the ATF were originally purchased at a gun shop in that same state. They’re next-most likely to turn up in a neighboring state.
Not all firearms can be traced, though. Dabkowski said most of those failed attempts are because of human error, like a serial number being written down incorrectly when a firearm is recovered.
In Illinois in 2014, out of 11,568 firearms recovered by law enforcement, 7,269 were able to be traced to a source, with 3,590 coming from Illinois and 1,041 from Indiana.
Hawley, who also sells at gun shows, said he thinks sales there are not as big of a factor in illegal gun transfers as the president portrays them to be.
At gun shows, the promoters make money by renting floor space and charging admission. They have a financial interest in preventing illegal sales out of car trunks in the parking lot, he said.
Even if all firearms transactions were to go through a background check at a licensed dealer, Hawley said he didn’t think the impact of that step would be significant on sales.
“Yes, it’s going to be a paperwork nightmare, and yes, it’s going to bog down the already overworked NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) people, but it will create that trace of all firearms from start to finish,” Hawley said.
Private sellers who raise the most concern are likely aware they are breaking federal law, Hawley said.
He thinks the real solution to preventing illegal gun transfers is more comprehensive enforcement.
With only about 2,400 field agents throughout the entire country, enforcing existing laws can be a problem for the ATF, Dabkowski said.
The ATF is responsible for visiting firearms dealers to make certain they are conducting background checks and maintaining records, she said. But it’s unlikely dealers will see an ATF agent more than once every three years when they have to renew their license.
Even so, Dabkowski said she would like to see more licensed gun dealers.
If more transactions are recorded through background checks, she said it could make it easier to trace where guns used in crimes come from.
Hawley said he doubted sellers who are conducting illegal business will go legal.
“They’re only doing it the way that they’re doing it right now because it’s an easier way out,” he said.
One concern the president raised about private sales at gun shows is the potential for someone to buy several guns from multiple sellers, with the intent to sell them again on the street. Spreading the purchases around would avoid suspicion.
If they can pass a background check, is there anything to prevent someone from doing the same thing, with licensed dealers and while passing multiple background checks?
Hawley said no.
During a background check, only the dealer keeps a paper file with the purchaser’s identity. All identifying information is purged from the federal database when the check is complete.
If someone purchases multiple guns in different locations in a single day, nothing in the background check system would notice it.
And the background check might not even verify that a buyer is who he says he is.
On the background check form, listing a Social Security number is optional.
Dabkowski said she is aware of at least one case of someone providing a false identity to attempt to pass a background check and being prosecuted.
It ultimately falls on a gun dealer to question whether the purchaser is who they say they are and that their ID is real.
Hawley has halted sales based on his own judgment of the buyer — though not for a suspicious identity.
Usually it comes down to the types of questions people ask, he said. If someone comes across as suspicious in any way, even in how they hesitate over a check box, it is the dealer’s right to not sell to them.
Anyone making a profit from firearm sales is considered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to be engaged in a business, said Suzanne Dabkowski, an ATF public information officer. That person needs to have a firearm dealer’s license.
Selling or purchasing a firearm privately to avoid a background check is illegal, she said.
“It’s, what is your mindset and your motive for acquiring and disposing of those firearms?” she said.
The ATF publishes a guide on private firearm transfers that can be found at atf.gov/file/100871/download.
Without a random survey, there is no way to know the total number of guns or gun owners in Brown County. The closest indicator is the percentage of adults with licenses to carry handguns.
Since 2014, that number has grown in every county in the state. Brown County is still the highest.
Brown County 2014: 21 percent
Brown County 2015: 23 percent
*Monroe County 2014: 7 percent
*Monroe County 2015: 8 percent
Bartholomew County 2014: 12 percent
Bartholomew County 2015: 14 percent
In Brown County, license holders grew by 1 percent, from 12 to 13 percent of women and from 31 to 32 percent of men.
*Monroe County has the lowest percentage of carry licenses in the state.
A number of things disqualify people from purchasing guns legally.
Before a background check is even submitted to the FBI, a gun dealer is responsible for making the purchaser answer questions about several items. Some deal with violent history; many do not.
1. Being under indictment — but not yet convicted — for any felony or any crime for which the person could serve more than a year in prison.
2. Any conviction punishable by a prison term of more than one year, regardless of the actual sentence handed down.
3. Any active warrant, such as for failure to pay child support.
4. A record of drug use.
5. A determination by a “court, board, commission other lawful authority” the the person is a danger to him or herself or others; is not competent to handle affairs such as their finances; or has ever been involuntarily committed to a mental institution for any length of time.
6. A dishonorable discharge from the Armed Forces.
7. A restraining order against the purchaser protecting the purchaser’s child, intimate partner or intimate partner’s child.
8. Any conviction of domestic violence.
9. Having ever renounced U.S. citizenship.
10. Being in the U.S. illegally.
Previously, members of a trust set up to own items restricted under the National Firearms Act — such as silencers, fully automatic firearms and functional artillery pieces — did not need to have individual background checks.
Trusts could avoid requirements that individual owners had to meet. Individuals had to have those items approved by their local head of law enforcement, such as a sheriff or chief of police.
Under President Barack Obama’s executive order, trust members will now have to undergo federal background checks.
Another change is that individual owners of NFA-restricted items will not have to receive local law enforcement approval. They will have to pass a background check instead.