More than 3,200 people tried to buy firearms in Washington this year, despite the fact they were the subjects of court orders prohibiting them from buying or owning guns.
Victims of the crimes that placed the prospective firearms buyers on the prohibited list are not told of those attempted gun purchases, and that's especially troubling to domestic violence victims.
“That could make all the difference in the world, just getting that phone call. How many lives would it save?” asked Paula, a domestic violence survivor in Pierce County who asked that her full name not be used as she still lives in fear.
In a joint investigation, KING 5 and public radio’s Northwest News Network found the name of Paula’s ex-boyfriend on a list of more than 200 people who tried to buy firearms at gun stores in unincorporated Pierce County during a 13-month period.
The sale was denied when he failed a background check because of a permanent protection order that a judge signed for Paula 20 years ago. The man was never convicted of a domestic violence crime, but the protection order cost him his right to purchase a firearm.
Paula said she is upset that domestic victims aren’t notified by authorities when their abusers try to buy a gun.
“That’s what scares me the most is that victims like me, who have tried so hard to make my life safe – my children’s lives safe, and I don’t even get a courtesy call,” Paula said when KING 5 informed her of her ex’s attempt to buy a handgun in March 2015.
Paula says knowing that her ex was gun shopping means she can better protect herself. She has a concealed weapons permit, and carries a handgun.
The background check that stopped Paula's ex from buying a guy is required for all firearms purchases in Washington. The checks are carried out by local police departments.
Gun buyers fill out federal form 4473, certifying that they are legally eligible to buy a gun.
Lying on that form is a state and federal crime. But KING 5 and Northwest News Network have been unable to find any cases where a prohibited buyer was investigated and prosecuted for attempted possession of a firearm, after they failed the background check.
Sheriff’s departments in both Pierce and King Counties say they do not have the resources to investigate those cases.
“I want to say to them, ‘Take a step back, Sheriff.’ Think about it. What if that was your wife? Your daughter? Your granddaughter? How would you feel? Would you want them to be notified?” Paula asked.
State Reps. Drew Hansen, D-Kitsap County, and Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, say that the system is failing victims and society at large.
“Criminals or fugitives from justice trying to buy firearms through legal channels – that is a huge public safety risk,” said Hansen.
Hansen is drafting legislation so that attempted gun purchases can be added to a notification system that is already in place for victims of domestic violence.
Hansen also wants that information to be available on mobile computers that police access so that officers will know about the attempted purchase if they contact the individual out in the field.
The lawmakers say the trickier issue is finding the resources to investigate and prosecute the 4,000 or so prohibited people who try to buy a gun in Washington each year.
Hansen said if individual police agencies can’t handle the job, perhaps it should be delegated to the Washington State Patrol. In neighboring Oregon, the state police conduct all background checks and follow-up investigations.
People can become “prohibited” buyers in the eyes of the law because of criminal convictions, involuntary mental health commitments, no contact orders, fugitive status, or because they are “an unlawful user/addicted to controlled substances.”
Both Hansen and Hayes acknowledge that most police agencies believe they do not have additional manpower to investigate these cases.
But Hansen says the state must find a way to discourage prohibited buyers from attempting to purchase firearms.
“At least if we can do some follow-up with these people, have them serve some prison time if that’s appropriate, have some deterrence, make sure we can keep guns out of their hands through the legal channels – it probably makes it harder to get guns through the illegal channels,” Hansen said.
Paula is worried that speaking out publicly could antagonize the man that she says abused her for 16 years. But she hopes that authorities will hear her plea to do more to protect victims.
“(I hope) that there’s gonna be other victims out there that aren’t going to be afraid to say, ‘Hey, why aren’t you taking care of us?'” Paula said.
Follow Chris Ingalls on Twitter @CJIngalls.