The prosecutor in Washington state's most-populated county is calling on police agencies to investigate people who try to buy guns when they are legally prohibited from owning them.
“They’ve shown an intent to get a gun, even when the law says they can’t have one. I want to know why that person is trying to get the gun,” said Dan Satterberg.
The county prosecutor is responding to reports by the KING 5 Investigators and public radio’s Northwest News Network revealing that 3,948 buyers failed background checks when trying to buy a firearm in 2015. These attempted purchases were made by drug dealers, accused child molesters, robbers, and domestic abusers.
Those people were not successful in buying a gun, but Satterberg says they broke misdemeanor or felony laws by filling out the paperwork required for a gun purchase. It asks buyers to certify that they are legally eligible to buy a gun.
“The background check did work. They didn’t get a gun. But I think it’s inherent within the law that we take the next step and ask, ‘Why did they try to get a gun and did they know they shouldn’t have a gun?'” Satterberg said.
KING 5 and Northwest News Network found that police agencies, which conduct the criminal background checks, do not investigate when a buyer fails the screening.
“We’ve not seen a single (case)," said Satterberg. "The King County Prosecutor's office would file these cases if they came to us."
Satterberg says police agencies have never forwarded a case to his office even though "you could be charged with attempted unlawful possession of a firearm."
Police agencies have told KING 5 that they don’t have the resources to pursue gun purchasers who failed background checks.
"What police officer that’s now doing a job do I bring in to handle these cases? Homicide detective? No. Patrol officer? No,” said King County Sheriff John Urquhart.
At the time Urquhart spoke with KING 5 in November, the sheriff was facing major cuts in his department's budget.
Under state and federal law, gun purchases can be denied if the buyer has a felony conviction, is a fugitive, has been involuntarily committed for mental illness, has a no-contact order, or has been convicted of domestic violence.
“I think it undermines the credibility of the law when it looks like it’s so easy to skirt it,” said Satterberg.
The prosecutor supports legislation recently introduced in the state legislature. House Bill 1501 would give the duty of investigating denied firearms purchases to the Washington State Patrol.
The bill’s prime sponsor, state Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, says victims of domestic violence in particular should know if their abuser tried to buy a gun.
“Maybe I just want to know so I can take a different route to work than usual. Maybe I stay at a family member’s house for a week. Maybe I purchase my own firearm and take some self-defense training,” said Hansen, explaining how a domestic violence victim could benefit from his proposal.
Satterberg says one out of every three King County murders is domestic violence related.
“There’s a real public policy interest to removing guns from situations where there’s chronic domestic violence,” Satterberg said.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island as a Republican from Bremerton.
Follow Chris Ingalls on Twitter @CJIngalls