A new Washington state law designed to crack down on felons, domestic abusers and others who lie and try to buy a gun is already resulting in prosecutions.
That law passed last year following an investigation by public radio and KING 5 News that found denied gun purchases happen nearly 4,000 times a year in Washington—but police rarely, if ever, followed up even though it’s a crime to lie on the background check form.
The new law requires gun dealers to report to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs when someone fails a background check to buy a gun. WASPC then notifies law enforcement in the jurisdiction where the attempted purchase took place.
One of the first referrals to police happened last July, just after the law took effect. Gun dealers in Silverdale and Tacoma reported that Timothy K. Smythe of Bremerton tried over the course of two days to buy an AR-15 rifle.
He was denied both times because of an 18-year-old felony conviction for second degree robbery in Hawaii. The head of WASPC at the time personally passed along the tip to the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office.
A detective was assigned to the case and started investigating. He obtained in-store surveillance video and the forms Smythe filled out to try to buy the guns. The detective also tracked down court paperwork in Hawaii confirming Smythe’s felony conviction. With that in hand, the Sheriff's Office felt it had a case to take to prosecutors.
“The number one thing is he is a convicted felon, and being a convicted felon you are prohibited from having firearms in your possession, owning them or being in close proximity and handling them. And he did those things when he was at the sporting goods stores,” said Sheriff’s spokesman Scott Wilson.
Prosecutors charged Smythe with one count of false swearing—a gross misdemeanor. In January, he pled guilty.
“What is important here is that this law now is in place and it allows us the tool to go after those individuals who attempt to purchase weapons knowing full well that they don’t have the right to do so,” Wilson said.
Since the law took effect last summer, Washington gun dealers have reported more than 1,700 background check denials. That’s resulted in 300 referrals to local police. One agency that didn’t wait to get a referral is the Puyallup Police Department. Captain Ryan Portmann told KING 5 his agency started looking into prohibited gun buyers after seeing the news organizations’ investigation that showed there’s rarely any consequence for people who lie on a background check form.
“After seeing the story, I began to wonder if we could do more and our agency began assigning the cases to detectives to look into and determine if charging would be appropriate,” Portmann said.
It turned out some of the denials were the result of outdated information in the background check system. But not all. Take the case of William A. Price, who had a robbery conviction from five years ago.
Price went to a Sportsman’s Warehouse in Puyallup last spring and tried to buy a handgun. Store surveillance video shows Price in a red hat filling out the federal paperwork to purchase a firearm. He also handles a pistol. Price was charged with false swearing and pled guilty last November.
Portmann said police had hoped Price would be charged with a felony. Prosecutors have indicated they don’t have the ability to charge a prohibited gun buyer with a felony unless they actually obtain the gun.
Recently, the head of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Tom McBride, issued guidance to his members suggesting they can charge prohibited gun buyers under Washington’s universal background check law. A first conviction would be a gross misdemeanor, but a second conviction would be a class C felony.
But not all prohibited gun buyer cases are so open and shut. Take the case of Daniel Legeer in Thurston County.
Last October, Legeer went to a pawn shop in Lacey to retrieve a shotgun he had pawned. He got the shotgun, but the following month he failed a more comprehensive background check required to pick up a pistol he had also pawned. The pawn shop notified WASPC, which in turn notified the Lacey Police Department. Soon police were at Legeer’s front door.
“It was a real big shock,” Legeer said in an interview.
Police say Legeer wasn’t supposed to have guns because of a previous criminal case involving a hit-and-run and insurance theft. Legeer says he thought that restriction lifted when he entered a diversion program for first-time offenders. Either way, Legeer says he’s not the kind of person Washington’s new prohibited gun buyer law is aimed at. He’s a medically-retired Army veteran and dad to two small children with no felony convictions on his record.
“Unfortunately...I feel like I was a little bit [a victim] of circumstance,” Legeer said. “I hope the state sees that as well, that I don’t fit the bill for the kind of person they’re looking for.”
The Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office says it’s doing more research into the case and has not yet filed formal charges against Legeer.