Mandatory background checks on private firearm sales are seen by many reform advocates as an essential next step for states seeking to make it more difficult for felons and other potentially dangerous people to buy guns. Newly released federal data stemming from a recently adopted law in Washington, one of a handful of states to implement universal background checks, shows that it is working to stop private sales to criminals — though the number of blocked transactions is small.
The FBI records, obtained by Seattle’s KING-TV and the public radio Northwest News Network, show that the federal background check system, or NICS, has prevented 50 felons from purchasing a gun from an unlicensed seller in Washington since expanded background checks took effect there in 2014. That works out to a rejection rate of less than 1 percent of the more than 6,000 private firearm sales during that timeframe, which is roughly in keeping with the nationwide share of blocked gun transfers to felons recorded by NICS in the 18 years it’s been in operation.
During the period in question, the vast majority of blocked sales to felons in Washington state — 3,950 — occurred at licensed firearm dealers.
The records list only the number of felons prevented from buying a gun. Not included in the dataset is information about individuals who failed a background check during a private transaction for mental health history, drug use, domestic violence orders, or other federal gun prohibitions.
Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, says the numbers give only a partial picture of the new law’s impact.
“Of course, blocking 50 felons from purchasing guns is a good thing,” Vernick tells The Trace. “What’s unknown, though, is how many prohibited possessors (including felons) were deterred from even attempting to buy a gun in the first place by the law.”
He adds: “Alternatively, we don’t know how many prohibited possessors sought other, illegal means to acquire a gun.”
A recent Harvard survey found that roughly 40 percent of respondents had acquired their most recent firearm without going through a background check.
Universal background checks were enacted in Washington state through a ballot question known as Initiative 594, which extended federal vetting to buyers in private gun sales — whether the transaction is initiated online, at a gun show, or through an unlicensed individual. Under the law, all gun sales must be facilitated by licensed gun dealers, who then conduct the background check.
The background check expansion was approved with nearly 60 percent of the vote in November 2014. Both sides in what has proved to be a contentious debate have seized on the newly-released data as evidence to support their position.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is among the law enforcement officers in Washington who oppose Initiative 594. He says that the 18-page law is “unenforceable,” an opinion shared by some officials in rural areas who argue the mandate will strain department resources and have no measurable impact on public safety.
“I’m glad it prevented 50 people from getting a gun,” Knezovich says in an interview. “But I also know the volume of firearms that are sold in the state of Washington, and I would assume I would be looking at a little more than 50.”
Joanna Paul, spokeswoman for the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, take the opposite view. She argues that the numbers show that the law is “absolutely” working, by thwarting felons hoping to obtain a gun in the “easiest way possible, which is to go through a private sale.”
“This is the first time we’ve really had data on how many prohibited purchases have been denied,” she adds. “Fifty people that really should not have firearms were not able to buy firearms. That means our work is paying off.”
Dave Workman, of the Washington-based Second Amendment Foundation, says there is no way to tell whether the 50 felons who were denied “subsequently got a firearm through some other means.” There are still ways for a prohibited person to obtain a gun in Washington, he notes. For example, Initiative 594 exempts people who receive a firearm from a family member as a gift.
Workman calls the total of private sale denials “a fly speck on the radar.”
So far, the rate of rejected private-sale gun buyers is similar to what Colorado reported following the implementation of a similar 2013 law. The mandate blocked 198 unlicensed sales not conducted at gun shows, a rejection rate of about 1.41 percent of nearly 15,000 background checks, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a seed donor to The Trace.
Getting recalcitrant sheriffs onboard could be a key next step for supporters of gun safety in Washington state. As Vernick notes, enforcement is critical to ensuring that a universal background check law — no matter the state — has real teeth. “That means publicizing the law and holding those who transfer a gun without a background check accountable,” he says. “This takes time, and Washington state’s law is quite new, so the data may change over time.”