Editor's note: This story originally aired on October 18, 2017.
Authorities in Kitsap County forwarded a case in October to prosecutors that could result in the first criminal charges under a new Washington law.
The sheriff’s office is investigating whether the suspect tried twice to buy firearms at local gun stores, even though he is prohibited from owning guns because of a previous criminal conviction.
The investigation underscores the shift that House Bill 1501 created after it was overwhelmingly passed by Washington lawmakers earlier this year.
That law aims to crack down on the 4,000 people each year who attempt to purchase firearms in Washington, even though they are prohibited because of previous convictions, no-contact orders, or mental illness. They fail the background checks required at gun stores and dealers refuse to sell them a gun.
Prior to HB 1501 taking effect in July, law enforcement did not follow up on these cases to determine why legally prohibited buyers were attempting to obtain guns.
An investigation by KING 5 and public radio’s Northwest News Network uncovered cases where rapists, robbers, and domestic abusers tried to purchase guns, with little consequence.
HB 1501 changes that, at least in some cases.
“The whole idea behind this is to protect people from folks that should not have firearms,” said Mitch Barker, the executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC).
The new law requires gun dealers to forward to WASPC all information about customers who fail an FBI background check. The agency then reviews each case and determines if the information should be forwarded to a local police agency for further investigation.
Attempted gun purchases are especially troubling in domestic violence cases, where studies show that an abuser who has access to a firearm is up to five times more likely to kill his victim.
HB 1501 sets up a notification system for crime victims that is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. The law allows domestic violence victims to receive an alert when their abuser attempts to buy a gun, via an existing crime victims notification system.
“I feel like we’re definitely breaking some new ground,” said WASPC’s Jamie Weimer, who is in charge of setting up the new system.
Barker believes that most prohibited buyers do not have “criminal intent,” and that they may have honestly been unaware that they were prohibited from owning a gun.
The owner of Private Sector Arms in Olympia disagrees. Don Teague believes that most customers who fail background checks know that they are prohibited from buying guns.
He supports the law but says police should investigate each and every person who fails a background check – not just a select few cases.
“By all means, I’m for people who should not have guns, not having guns,” Teague said.
Follow Chris Ingalls on Twitter @CJIngalls.
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