A new statewide report shows that nearly 700 people have been referred to law enforcement for attempting to purchase firearms, since a new law went into effect in 2017 that cracks down on “prohibited” gun buyers.
The report by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) says it notified law enforcement about 264 people who made multiple attempts to purchase handguns through licensed firearms dealers, 103 background checks that failed after the buyer had received the gun, 192 people who had protection orders against them that barred them from owning guns, and 255 people with felony convictions.
The report says in 84 cases where there were “delayed denials” – and the buyer received a gun before the background check was completed – but the firearm had not been retrieved.
Supporters of the law (HB 1501) say the numbers show that criminals do not always get their guns from the street; they often try to access the legal gun market as well.
HB 1501 was sponsored by Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, and Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, a police officer.
In most cases, prohibited purchasers fail to receive the firearm, because they do not pass the background check. However, applying for the purchase of a firearm is itself illegal for felons, people who have protective orders against them, those convicted of domestic violence, and the mentally ill who have been involuntarily committed.
In 2016, the KING 5 Investigators and public radio’s Northwest News Network reported that nearly 4,000 prohibited buyers tried to purchase a firearm each year in Washington. The news stations could find no examples of prosecutions of these cases, even though the attempted purchases are against the law. Law enforcement agencies said they did not have the resources to investigate these cases, even though they were aware of the failed background checks because it is the police agencies that conduct those checks on behalf of licensed dealers.
House Bill 1501, passed by Washington lawmakers in 2017, tapped WASPC to review failed firearms transactions and determine which merit follow-up by law enforcement agencies.
There were 3,248 denied firearm applications between July 2017 and July 2018. Six hundred sixty-nine were referred to law enforcement. The law does not require law agencies to investigate, but HB 1501 provides grants that help fund those investigations.
The referrals resulted in 104 police investigations, according to WASPC, including a gang member trying to buy a gun, and a person who was named in an extreme risk protection order.
“We know that it only takes one person with ill intentions to make a tragedy. Each of these instances could have had a very different outcome,” the WASPC report noted.
The report says 12 cases that were referred to prosecutors were charged, and 13 cases were not charged.
“We’ve…been working with prosecutors to make sure they know how to charge these cases. So, we’re still working to identify areas where we can improve, but the early indications are positive,” said Hansen.
The WASPC report also noted instances where firearms purchasers were “…incorrectly being denied transactions” because of paper work errors and mistakes – although it couldn’t determine how often this occurs.