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Oregon pursues a gun crime left largely unaddressed in Washington

Felons and domestic abusers who try to buy a gun in Oregon could face stiff penalties, including jail time. But across the Columbia River in Washington, it’s a different story.

Felons and domestic abusers who try to buy a gun in Oregon could face stiff penalties, including jail time.

But across the Columbia River in Washington, it’s a different story.

Thousands of “prohibited buyers” attempt to purchase a firearm in Washington each year. But authorities in the Evergreen State do not follow up on those attempts nor notify the victim of the crime that landed the buyers on the prohibited list in the first place.

As part of a continuing investigation, KING 5 and public radio’s Northwest News Network traveled to Oregon to watch the State Police Firearms Instant Check (FICS) unit in action.

“We average about 300 (denied purchases) a month,” said Captain Bill Fugate, a spokesman for the Oregon State Police.

The FICS unit conducts about 300,000 background checks for firearms purchases each year. Like Washington, all gun buyers must submit to a background check. Felonies, domestic violence convictions, mental health holds and fugitive status are some of the reasons that a buyer could fail the screening.

What’s different in Oregon is that the state police there try to dispatch the nearest trooper to question the would-be buyer before the buyer leaves the gun store.

“(We send) the closest one to get there to try to find the person that’s there because you don’t know if that person will go somewhere else to try to obtain a firearm through another dealer – or potentially unlawfully,” said Fugate.

Some cases are considered a higher priority.

“A person with a protection order is a huge red flag for violence, immediately violence,” said Fugate.

In Washington, advocates for domestic violence victims have rallied around HB 1501, which would create an enforcement strategy similar to Oregon's.

It’s already against the law in Washington to lie on a gun purchase form about your eligibility to purchase a firearm. But HB 1501, sponsored by state Reps. Drew Hansen (D-Bainbridge Island) and Dave Hayes (R-Camano Island) would tap the Washington State Patrol to follow-up on the nearly 4,000 cases each year in which a gun buyer fails a background check in Washington.

Oregon State Police admit that it isn’t always easy to prove that prohibited buyers who fail a background check actually committed a crime. Last year, the first full year that Oregon’s law was in effect, troopers arrested a dozen prohibited buyers. They cited nearly 800 other people and forwarded those cases to prosecutors.

Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel said in an email to Northwest News Network that prosecution can be difficult because prosecutors have to prove that the buyers knew they were ineligible to have a gun, and that they lied on the purchase form.

Hummel said there have been 38 prosecutions in his county Deschutes since January 1, 2015. It’s unclear how many prosecutions there have been statewide.

But OSP officials say there has been a positive effect from the law: Fewer prohibited buyers are showing up at gun stores trying to get their hands on a firearm.

Records show that denied purchases at Oregon gun stores fell from 1,907 in 2015 to 1,641 failed background checks in 2016.

OSP’s Fugate believes the system is discouraging illegal buyers.

"(It's) putting them on notice that we’re aware of the attempted purchase of a firearm," Fugate said.

-- Follow Chris Ingalls on Twitter @CJIngalls.