OLYMPIA — In 2017, Washington law-enforcement agencies and the FBI conducted a combined 580,000 background checks on gun buyers in the state.
They did so to make sure the potential buyers aren’t barred by law from possessing firearms, such as a felon, or some people named on a protection order or civilly committed for mental-health issues.
But a study in 2016 — and now a new report — conclude that Washington’s decentralized style of conducting background checks is fragmented, potentially confusing and possibly loose enough to let some prohibited people buy guns.
The new report recommends that Washington create a centralized way to conduct gun-purchase background checks, preferably through the Washington State Patrol.
The move would increase public safety with more consistent training and oversight and would cut the burden on local law officers performing more than 440,000 checks annually, according to the report by the state Office of Financial Management.
“What comes screaming out of the report is that the existing background checks system does indeed have gaps,” said Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, who sponsored the bill authorizing the report and is working on legislation for a new system.
Firearms remain one of the most divisive political issues in Washington. Voters and the Legislature in recent years have approved a slew of new restrictions, prompting outcry and opposition from gun-rights advocates.
But streamlining background checks has so far found some agreement between Democrats and Republicans in Olympia.
Lawmakers this spring unanimously passed the bill that authorized the new report, which studied the feasibility of centralizing the checks.
The Democratic and GOP co-sponsors of the bill authorizing the study said they hope lawmakers can overhaul the system during the legislative session that starts in January.
“I’m very, very hopeful we can get this up and running,” said Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw, who in his day job is a Seattle police officer.
Currently, more than 200 local law-enforcement agencies across the state are responsible for making sure buyers of handguns are allowed to have them. With voters’ passage of Initiative 1639 last year, those local agencies this summer had to start also making checks on buyers of semi-automatic rifles.
I-1639, among other things, raised the legal purchase age for semi-automatic rifles to 21 and mandated enhanced background checks for buyers of semi-automatic rifles.
Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) checks a federal database to make sure people buying long guns like shotguns or lever-action rifles are allowed to have them.
That all adds up to a dual arrangement currently used by only three other states, according to the FBI: Maryland, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.
If lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee — who supports a centralized system — do make the change, Washington would become the 14th state to have a centralized system, according to the FBI. Those states include California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Tennessee.
A new system could allow a firearms dealer to contact the State Patrol — rather than the FBI or a local law-enforcement agency — to initiate a background check.
In theory, a single clearinghouse for checks could provide better-trained staff, a more thorough check of existing records and faster service for lawful gun buyers.
The report estimates the system would need $3.4 million in start-up money. After that, it would need approximately $10.2 million per year, which could be offset by a per-check fee of $18.63.
Lawmakers say they want to make sure people prohibited from having guns aren’t breaking the law to buy a firearm. And local law-enforcement groups have been concerned about the increasing amount of work to handle the background checks.
A centralized system would mean that, “For once, it’s the state taking the load off of local government,” Irwin said.
The FBI, meanwhile, has spurred lawmakers to take a second look at the issue.
Last year, the FBI declared it would no longer conduct so-called “courtesy checks” for conceal-carry license holders in the state buying handguns. The checks allowed those license holders to potentially bring home a pistol the day they bought it, without having to wait for local law enforcement to finish its check.
The new report says the FBI also will stop background checks on gun parts. Without a new system, local law enforcement will have to start making checks on those, too.
The report identified weaknesses in the current system. When the FBI conducts long-gun checks, it can miss some disqualifying factors that aren’t in the federal database, like the presence of misdemeanor warrants or juvenile felonies.
Meanwhile, local law-enforcement agencies, depending on their size, have wildly different resources available to train staff and keep up with new regulations and procedures. Sometimes, the agencies use databases that differ from other law-enforcement agencies.
“This means that … Washington citizens are receiving varying levels of scrutiny depending on where they live and which agency is performing the check,” according to the report. “Thus, certain prohibiting factors such as juvenile records and recent arrests might be overlooked in some areas of the state.”
Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle and chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, called a new system “the highest priority” for the upcoming session in terms of firearms issues.
“I feel quite confident that we can get the policy through committee and think that there’s broad bipartisan support for doing that,” he said.
In a legislative committee session on the report last month, Capt. Neil Weaver of the Washington State Patrol said the agency supports the concept. Weaver added that visiting another state that uses a centralized system, such as Utah, would be helpful in order to learn how to implement it.
The report also raised the idea that Washington could create a central system for pistols and semi-automatic rifles, but still leave checks on long guns to the FBI.
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