Gun background check system can be complex, confusing

A new law targets "prohibited" gun buyers in Washington state who try to purchase firearms. However, the law presents challenges for authorities.

In February, a Lacey police detective put handcuffs on Daniel Legeer and accused him of trying to obtain a firearm, despite a court order barring him from possessing a gun.

The 37-year-old, medically retired Army veteran said he was shocked and “disappointed” by the arrest, because he believes he can own a gun.

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“Nowhere in the court order does it state any restrictions on firearms,” Legeer said waving paperwork from a previous theft case, in which Legeer avoided a conviction by agreeing to participate in a diversion program for first-time offenders.

Lacey police sought to charge Legeer after being alerted to his attempted firearms transaction under the provisions of House Bill 1501. The law approved overwhelmingly by lawmakers last year encourages police departments to pursue the roughly 4,000 prohibited buyers in Washington who attempt to purchase firearms at gun stores.

Legeer’s case shows how each investigation can be riddled with challenges for authorities ranging from confusing or incomplete court paperwork to defendants who might genuinely be unaware that they can’t purchase a firearm.

The law requires that prosecutors prove that suspects “knowingly” violated the order that they can’t have firearms. Buyers are required to fill out federal paperwork swearing that they are eligible to own a gun. Lying on that form is a state and federal offense.

Legeer said when he entered the court’s diversion program, he thought the restriction against firearms was lifted.

Legeer pawned two guns – a rifle and a handgun – at Cash Northwest Pawn Shop in Lacey.

When he went to retrieve his rifle, he was required to undergo a background check to take possession of the gun.

He passed that background check.

However, when he returned for his pistol, he failed that background check and Lacey Police were alerted.

When Legeer spoke with public radio’s Northwest News Network a few weeks ago, the Thurston County prosecutor’s office was still trying to decide whether to file charges against him.

The affidavit from a Lacey police detective says records show Legeer signed an order not to possess firearms in May 2016, and the police department recommended charging Legeer with unlawful possession of firearms in the second degree.

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The Puyallup Police Department has investigated several “prohibited buyer” cases in their city, since Northwest News Network and KING 5 began reporting on the issue.

The cases often do not result in criminal charges, according to police Capt. Ryan Portmann.

“Many times they’re surprised that they are not able to possess a firearm,” said Portmann.

For example, many older criminal cases may not contain records showing that the defendant was clearly warned that he or she could not possess a gun.

Therefore, it’s hard to prove they knowingly violated the law.

House Bill 1501 taps the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to alert local police agencies to people with serious criminal records who try to buy guns.

WASPC also alerts local police when there are multiple background checks run on a prohibited buyer, which may be why Lacey police were alerted to Legeer.

“I hope the state sees that…I don’t fit the bill for the kind of person they’re looking for,” said Legeer.

– Follow Chris Ingalls on Twitter @CJIngalls