With big changes coming to Washington's firearms background-checks system, lawmakers and one law enforcement group are discussing how to adapt — and possibly reshape — the state's complicated, sprawling system.
OLYMPIA — Washington voters and the federal government this year delivered big changes to the state’s background-check system designed to keep people who are not allowed to have guns from buying them.
In the face of those changes, state lawmakers and at least one law enforcement group are now discussing how to adapt — and possibly reshape — a system that has been called confusing and overly complicated.
The discussion comes after voters in November approved I-1639, a broad package of new firearms restrictions. I-1639 includes a more extensive layer of background checks for people seeking to buy semi-automatic rifles.
Buyers of weapons ranging from assault-style AR-15s to some .22 caliber sport rifles will now get thorough checks — conducted by local law enforcement agencies — similar to what handgun buyers currently receive.
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While no one knows how many more checks police departments and county sheriff’s offices will have to conduct because of the initiative, it could amount to tens of thousands around the state.
Federal Bureau of Investigation data show that through Nov. 30 of this year, the agency processed 127,655 background checks for long-guns — which includes semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and bolt-action rifles — in Washington state.
But I-1639 isn’t the only change coming. This year, the FBI — which manages the nationwide background-checks database — announced it would end its so-called “courtesy checks” that allow Washington’s conceal-carry license holders to potentially bring home a handgun the day they purchase it.
Those checks allow license holders to avoid the customary waiting period of up to 10 days that people buying handguns usually face. Lawmakers will have to pass legislation to address that and another change being directed by the FBI.
Both the FBI directives and I-1639’s background-checks provisions take effect in July. That gives lawmakers one season in Olympia — the legislative session that starts Jan. 14 — to make any adjustments.
Even before this year’s developments, some lawmakers questioned whether Washington’s system is too complicated.
A patchwork of laws passed over the years, the system involves the federal government, more than 250 local law enforcement jurisdictions, multiple Washington state agencies and the courts.
While officials insist the system is working, a 2016 research paper by the state Attorney General’s Office called it a “fragmented” system that includes “complex and inconsistent processes.”
What to do about it is another matter. Some would prefer a centralized system for record-keeping and searches, perhaps controlled by one state agency. Others believe that despite the system’s complexities, local law officers are best positioned to determine whether someone is eligible to have a firearm.
“I think there’s general consensus that the system is complicated and confusing,” said Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island. “There is not yet general consensus about the right way to streamline it.”
Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and Sheriffs, says I-1639 background checks could unduly burden police departments and sheriff’s offices. Lawmakers could possibly streamline the fragmented system while keeping the benefits of local law reinforcement checks, he said, though it would have to balance Second Amendment rights with public safety.
He wasn’t ready to make any recommendations yet, Strachan said, “other than we need to definitely put this on the front burner.”
Meanwhile, gun-rights advocates have worried that I-1639 and a centralized system could eventually lead to a gun registry, which they view as a route to eventually confiscate firearms. Others are concerned a centralized database could allow for the theft or misuse of gun-owners’ sensitive personal data. I-1639 has already drawn one lawsuit seeking to block the new law.
Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, has filed a pair of bills for the upcoming legislative session to keep the state from creating centralized databases that track pistol transfers or owners who are legally allowed to have firearms.
“Even people who don’t own a gun should be concerned about this,” said Walsh. “It’s a matter of personally identifying information, which is in many cases your most personal valuable asset.”
A patchwork system
In Washington, the federal government handles checks for long guns, while local law enforcement agencies review would-be buyers of handguns.
The checks determine whether someone is prohibited from having firearms under state and federal law. Those barred from having firearms include felons, people convicted of some drug crimes, fugitives, people who have been civilly committed for mental-health issues, and those who have certain protection orders filed against them.
When someone goes to buy a shotgun or rifle, a licensed firearms dealer initiates a background check through the FBI’s database. Those checks are often quickly returned, and if the purchaser is allowed, they can take the gun home the same day.
In the case of handgun purchases, local law enforcement agencies initiate a federal check, and also make additional reviews of local and state court and mental-health records to confirm the buyer is legally allowed to have the weapon.
At one point or another, those checks involve the state Department of Licensing, the Washington State Patrol and the Health Care Authority. Washington’s state courts system is also responsible for putting some necessary records into the databases.
If law enforcement hasn’t determined within 10 days whether someone is prohibited — and doesn’t have enough evidence to go to a judge and ask for an extension — the firearm can be delivered to the buyer.
If a would-be handgun buyer has a conceal-carry license — which is given after a thorough background check and is valid for five years — the checks work a little differently. In those cases, a firearms dealer would check the FBI database, rather than local law enforcement.
If the buyer clears that check, they can take their handgun home the day of the purchase — rather than waiting up to 10 days for law enforcement officers to complete the check.
But the FBI reviewed its background-checks procedures and found that those so-called “courtesy checks” aren’t part of Washington’s agreement with the federal government. The FBI intends to end those checks in July.
The likely solution, according to Strachan and Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, is to end same-day take-homes of pistols by conceal-carry holders.
While conceal-carry holders have been thoroughly vetted and are generally law-abiding, said Goodman, some in law enforcement are worried about them taking home firearms without any check being completed.
That concern particularly involves people accused of domestic violence after obtaining a concealed-carry permit, the records of which might not show up in a federal check, according to Goodman.
“Too often, people in a home where there’s firearms will use it against a loved one,” he said.
The FBI has also directed Washington state to tweak its law involving a certain fingerprint-based background check. Lawmakers and the office of Gov. Jay Inslee say that is a technical fix and shouldn’t ultimately change how checks are conducted.
Bigger workloads ahead
Nobody knows how many additional background checks I-1639 will add, but local and state agencies are bracing for an increase.
To cope with the anticipated workloads, Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2019-21 proposed state budget plan would add 10 staffers to the state Department of Licensing, which maintains some firearms records for the state, and one staffer for the Washington State Patrol.
It also provides some new funding for the state Health Care Authority, which searches mental-health records on behalf of local law enforcement during the enhanced checks.
Christine James, records manager for the Auburn Police Department, said she is training more of her employees on background-checks — but those workers are already busy with their current tasks.
One county in Central Washington has estimated it will need to hire a new full-time staffer to handle the workload, Strachan said.
The distribution of those background checks could fall more heavily on cities or counties that have a large retailer, like a Cabela’s, that sells a lot of firearms, he added.
Goodman said he anticipates lawmakers will come up with some funding to make sure local law enforcement can conduct the influx of new background checks.
As for a broad overhaul to the system, Sonja Hallum, a policy adviser for Inslee, said law enforcement would have to be on board. But, “It’s an opportune time to ask the question of whether it makes sense to be looking at some other options,” she said.