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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

'Lie And Try' To Buy A Gun In Washington? Little Risk Of Arrest, Prosecution

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Don Teague of Private Sector Defense, a gun store in Olympia, shows how the FBI's instant background check system works.

What happens when someone who’s not supposed to have a gun lies about their background and tries to buy one? In Washington state, the answer is not much.

FBI records show that between January and August of this year, 3,259 would-be gun buyers in Washington failed a federal background check. But police and prosecutors rarely, if ever, pursue these people.

Denials happen about 90,000 times a year nationally. Lying on the federal background check form is a felony. But a recent Inspector General report found that in 2014, federal prosecutors pursued fewer than 50 of these cases -- a 10-year low.

Not a priority for police

And when the feds do go after a failed gun buyer, it’s usually because there’s an aggravating circumstance. In Washington, it’s a gross misdemeanor to make a false statement on the state’s pistol transfer form. But going after these denied pistol buyers is also not a priority for local police and prosecutors.

“What do we do? Not a darn thing,” King County Sheriff John Urquhart said. But he said the system is working by preventing gun purchases.

“There is a gut reaction. People want their pound of flesh. ‘What do you mean this guy’s trying to buy a gun and he’s a convicted felon? Dammit he should be in jail for doing that,’” Urquhart said. “ Well, the reality is it isn’t going to happen.”

Urquhart said he would have to take detectives off other cases or deputies off the street to go after failed buyers. But even if he had the resources, Urquhart isn’t convinced pursuing prohibited gun buyers makes sense when the black market for guns on the street is thriving.

“We’re not going to change gun violence or any sort of violence in the United States by prosecuting these people that tried to buy a gun and shouldn’t have been trying to do that,” Urquhart said. “That’s really the reality of the situation.”

Records from the King County Sheriff’s Office reveal that between January and October of this year, 60 would-be pistol buyers living in unincorporated King County were denied after a local background check. Many had convictions for domestic assault or had a restraining order against them. Victims contacted by KING 5 said they were terrified to hear their abusers were trying to get guns.

Other denied gun buyers include: people with outstanding warrants, convicted felons and those who’ve been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital.

How a background check works

Private Sector Arms in Olympia sells all kinds of firearms from pistols to AR-15s and even .50 caliber sniper rifles. But not before running a background check.

Owner Don Teague showed how the the e-check system works. For rifle and shotgun sales, it’s an instant check using an FBI system.

And it’s fast. After a few punches of the keyboard, Teague said I was approved.

But for pistol purchases in Washington, the process is different. There’s the FBI check. But local law enforcement also conducts a background check. And that can take up to 10 days.

Teague said denials are rare in his store -- perhaps because he charges a $200 fee for failed background checks -- but it does happen from time to time.

“A lot of times they’re like ‘What?!?,’ like they have no clue,” Teague said. “’What are you talking about, I’ve never done anything.’”

Teague has some sympathy for people in that situation. But he said, “If it’s a felon doing it, that guy needs to get strung up for trying to get a gun. That’s just straight scary.”

‘There needs to be accountability’

One person who thinks the system should go after prohibited buyers is Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat.

“Clearly in cases where someone knew they were not allowed to have that firearm and they’re seeking one anyway. There needs to be accountability for that,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson recently issued a report titled “Access to Firearms in Washington State.” That report calls Washington’s background check system fragmented and says solutions are needed to follow up on illegal attempts to purchase guns by prohibited buyers.

“It can’t just be a lie-and-try system,” Ferguson said. “I then go to the next dealer and the one after that until somehow something falls through the cracks and I get that firearm I’m not legally entitled to have.”

Ferguson noted that Oregon has a centralized background check system run by the state police. When a would-be buyer is denied, that’s immediately referred to state or local law enforcement for investigation. Similar systems are in place in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Austin Jenkins reported this story in collaboration with KING 5 News.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."