In July, Washington became the first state to require law enforcement agencies to notify domestic abuse survivors if their abuser tries to buy a gun. The measure was part of a broader law meant to crack down on gun shoppers who obscure or omit their criminal history on a background check form, a practice known as “lie and try.”
The law, HB 1501, requires federally licensed gun retailers to report denials because of domestic violence convictions, felony convictions, or restraining orders to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC), which is tasked with maintaining a database and referring select cases to local law enforcement agencies for investigation. Cases are also sent to police for investigation when a prohibited buyer tries to buy a gun multiple times and is denied, and also when a gun is sold before a background check is completed — known as a “default proceed” — and the buyer is ultimately denied, but hasn’t surrendered his or her weapon.
We now have an idea of how the new system is working. Of the 1,231 denied applications reported since WASPC began forwarding denials to the Washington State Patrol in August, 152 people have been referred to local law enforcement departments for investigation, the organization announced last month. Of those attempted buyers:
- 71 were named in active protective orders.
- 49 made multiple attempts.
- 49 got their guns in a default proceed and hadn’t yet surrendered their weapons.
“It’s a matter of life and death," says one survivor.
As we reported in May 2016, submitting false information on a background check is a felony under federal law, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. As many as 160,000 people are denied a gun purchase each year because they failed a check. Few are ever apprehended, much less prosecuted. Available federal and state data suggest that the percentage of arrests as a proportion of denied sales is extremely low — likely in the single digits.
One reason why “lie and try” cases aren’t pursued more often is cost. The Washington law established a fund to reimburse local law enforcement up to $500 for each transaction denial it investigates. But so far, WASPC has received only three grant requests, only one of which resulted in a prosecution.
The report identified some hiccups when it comes to implementing the new law. In Washington, background checks for handgun transactions are performed by local law enforcement, while transactions for long guns, such as rifles and shotguns, are conducted by the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Because of this division of responsibilities, WASPC noted, it’s not clear who is responsible for confiscating guns from prohibited purchasers who received them in default proceed transactions.
“Our research indicates that responsibility falls to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for long gun purchases while the responsibility for recovery of handguns falls to local law enforcement,” Mitch Barker, WASPC’s recently retired executive director, wrote. He said he supported a 2016 recommendation by the state attorney general to adopt a single, centralized system for background checks and gun retrieval.