Thousands of times each year in the United States, someone convicted of domestic abuse or subject to an active restraining order seeks to illegally purchase a gun from a licensed dealer — usually, without any consequences. On July 23, Washington will become the first state to require authorities to notify victims when such an attempted sale takes place. The measure is part of a sweeping new law that seeks to crack down on all prohibited purchasers who attempt to buy firearms in the state, a practice known as “lie and try.”
“Giving survivors of domestic violence the option to be notified if an abuser attempts to illegally purchase a gun allows them to more accurately plan for their own safety and the safety of those closest to them,” said Tamaso Johnson, the public policy director for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The legislation, which establishes a grant program to aid authorities in conducting investigations into failed attempts to purchase firearms, comes amid heightened attention to the danger posed by abusers armed with guns.
According to the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning advocacy group, more than half of women killed as a result of domestic violence between 2001 and 2012 nationwide were killed with a gun. Other research has found that if a domestic-violence abuser has access to a gun, a victim is five times more likely to be killed.
In Washington, 54 percent of the 678 domestic-violence homicides over a 17-year span were committed with firearms, the state’s domestic violence coalition found. More than half of those who shot intimate partners in domestic violence-related incidents in 2013 and 2014 were legally prohibited from possessing firearms at the time of the shooting, the group’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project determined.
Federal law prohibits people from possessing guns if they are under a final protective order for domestic abuse or have been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence. Lying on a gun background-check form is a federal offense, but it is rarely prosecuted by federal authorities unless it concerns smuggling or other large-scale fraudulent gun purchases.
Between January and December 2016, more than 3,000 “lie-and-try” attempts in Washington were never even investigated, according to an investigation by KING 5 TV in Seattle and the Northwest News Network. The story closely followed a report from the state’s attorney general that found that in 2003, about 1,400 people were turned down from purchasing a gun at the point of sale because of a history of domestic violence or because they were subject to an active protection order.
The reporters for the Washington news station’s investigation couldn’t find a single example of a “lie-and-try” prosecution in the state. Local sheriffs responded by saying they didn’t have the time or funds to look into these cases.
Paula Harwood, an abuse victim who was told by the news station reporters that her assailant had tried to buy a gun, later testified before the state legislature that the notification requirement was “a matter of life and death.” Representative Drew Hansen, the Democrat who co-sponsored House Bill 1501, said that Harwood described the reporters’ call as “a punch in the gut.”
Hansen said the idea for the bill came from a conversation he had with Dave Hayes, a Republican colleague who is also a police officer. Hansen wanted to know what happened to would-be gun owners who failed their background check. Hayes said he wasn’t sure. “It turned out,” Hansen said, “the answer was basically zip, nothing.”
When the new law takes effect, sellers must report failed background checks to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which currently administers the state’s existing notification system. That system is already used to alert victims if a protection order is served or will soon expire. WASPC will then input the information in the notification system, triggering an alert to the victim. The agency will also reach out to the Washington State Patrol, to alert the police agency of the attempted purchase.
The Lethality Assessment Project, a widely accepted protocol that evaluates the risk that a violent crime may occur, recommends that domestic-violence victims be armed with as much information as possible to evaluate their potential vulnerability in what can be fatal situations.
“Survivors of domestic violence and coercive control are the experts on their situation, and experts on the abuser’s behavior,” said Natalie Dolci, a victim advocate with the Seattle Police Department. “If they learn that the abuser is attempting to access firearms illegally, they will know the significance of that red flag, and be able to plan accordingly.”