For far too long, Washington’ gun-licensing system has relied on a patchwork of local governments, which has screened applicants unevenly across the state.
As a new state Office of Financial Management report recommends, the Washington State Patrol should take over the job to create a single consistent statewide background-check system.
The current system places the burden of screening gun buyers on more than 200 local law-enforcement agencies. When a person wants to buy a gun, the paperwork enters what the report calls “a multi-jointed process” of parallel paths toward the same destination, depending on the type of gun involved.
Local law enforcement screens the background of handgun or semi-automatic rifle buyers for disqualifying criminal convictions or other past incidents. Arrests and some juvenile convictions beyond the jurisdiction of the agency performing the check often don’t show up on this search, according to the report.
All gun buyers also get checked against a federal database of people who aren’t allowed to have guns. If the gun is a shotgun or lever-action rifle, the FBI handles the search. Only a few states nationally split the duties this way.
No law compels consistency among local agencies’ database checks. That uneven system is part of the problem. Additionally, the FBI is ending some of the background checking it has been conducting, increasing the workload Washington local governments face.
A Republican lawmaker and a Democratic colleague have spoken out already in support of the common-sense fix of creating a single statewide checking system. Legislators from both parties should pass a law in 2020 to set up the State Patrol to process gun-license background checks efficiently and thoroughly.
This public-safety improvement will aid bureaucratic efficiency through economy of scale. The State Patrol will hold every applicant to the same standards, centralizing arrest and juvenile records that don’t show up across county lines currently.
The state averages more than 440,000 gun-purchase applications per year. For the sake of public safety, each buyer must be checked against all relevant sets of criminal records. State voters approved Initiative 1639 in 2018 to ensure reliable background checks of anyone who wants to buy a gun. Yet the “fragmented” review system identified in a 2016 Attorney General’s report has not been fixed.
The Legislature will need to spend $3.4 million to stand up the centralized application system, while a reasonable fee attached to each application will generate the $10.2 million annual cost of running it. Both costs are necessary to modernize a system of checks voters have agreed is essential to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous buyers.