A 2017 law that requires Washington gun dealers to report when someone tries to buy a firearm and fails a background check has resulted in at least 10 arrests and two convictions so far, according to a report by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC).
Prior to the passage of the law, the public radio Northwest News Network and KING 5 News in Seattle found that police rarely, if ever, followed up on denied gun purchases — even though it's a crime to lie on the background check form.
While police are now investigating some of these failed purchases, arrests and prosecutions are still the exception, not the rule.
Prior to passage of the law, records showed approximately 4,000 people failed background checks to buy a gun each year in Washington. Sometimes, though, the background checks incorrectly flagged people who were legally entitled to purchase a firearm.
During the first year the law was in effect, Washington gun dealers reported 3,248 denied applications for the purchase or transfer of a firearm. WASPC, which administers the law, referred 669 of those reports to local law enforcement for possible follow up.
Among the cases that were referred:
- An individual who was the subject of an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) attempted to purchased a gun and was denied. That person was later arrested and charged.
- A former gang member twice attempted to purchase a gun during a six day period and was denied each time. The individual subsequently pleaded guilty to false swearing and was sentenced to 90 days in jail.
- An individual who tried to buy a gun and was denied five days after being arrested for felony theft.
"We know that it only takes one person will ill intentions to make a tragedy," said WASPC executive director Steve Strachan in his report to the governor and legislators. "Each of these instances could have had a very different outcome."
The prime sponsor of the 2017 legislation, Democratic state Rep. Drew Hansen, said the early indications are positive.
"The whole point of this law was to strengthen the state's background check system and make sure there are consequences when someone illegally tries to buy a gun and fails a background check," Hansen said in a statement. "We have some early indications the law is doing just that, with over 600 cases referred to local law enforcement for investigation."
Hansen added that he is working to identify ways to improve the law and the collection of data, as well as working with prosecutors to make sure they're familiar with how to file criminal charges in these cases.
In fiscal year 2018, WASPC awarded law enforcement agencies $62,142 in state grant funds to investigate 123 failed gun purchases, which are sometimes referred to as "lie and try." Those investigations resulted in 10 arrests, 12 people being charged and at least two convictions, according to data provided by those agencies and obtained through court databases.
At the same time, the report from WASPC noted that some would-be gun buyers are being denied a purchase despite having had their firearms rights restored.
"We believe these instances further demonstrate the need for consistency and additional training across the state as it relates to background checks," Strachan said in his report.
In addition to requiring gun dealers to alert WASPC to failed gun purchases, the 2017 Washington law allows domestic violence victims with active protection orders to sign up for automatic alerts should their abuser attempt to purchase a firearm.
This story has been updated.