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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? New Law Requires Dealer To Report You

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Gun dealer Don Teague behind the counter at his gun store in west Olympia.

Guns and domestic violence are a deadly combination. Now domestic violence survivors in Washington can find out if their abusers illegally attempt to buy a gun through a licensed dealer.

That’s because of a first-in-the-nation law that took effect this summer.

Every time gun dealers sell a gun, they must run a background check on the buyer. Under the new law, if the buyer fails that check dealers have to fill out a report by logging into a special website and entering the information on the failed purchaser.

Previously, guns dealers weren’t required to report failed background checks. But that changed this summer when a new law went into effect that targets felons, domestic abusers and other prohibited gun buyerswho lie about their background and try to purchase a firearm.

‘I don’t see how that it is going to do any good’

The law passed following our investigation with KING 5 that found failed gun purchases happen nearly 4,000 times a year in Washington, but police rarely if ever follow up.

Don Teague, who owns Private Sector Arms in Olympia, supports the new law in concept.

“I’m totally comfortable with cracking down on people illegally buying guns—absolutely,” he said.

But he’s not happy the job of reporting failed background checks has fallen to the state’s 1,500 gun dealers.

“If I thought it would do any good it would be a necessary hassle, but I don’t see how that it is going to do any good,” Teague said.

That's because there’s still no guarantee police will investigate these cases.

A tool for domestic violence survivors

But something else does happen. When a gun dealer reports a failed background check, that information goes to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. If the person who tried to buy the gun has a protection order against them, their victim can get an alert.

Last February, Paula Marr told Washington lawmakers she found out from a reporter that the man she has a permanent protection order against tried to buy a gun.

“Who’s going to look out for my protection and my children?” Marr said in her testimony.

Marr testified in favor of HB 1501 which created the notification to victims.

“That notification system to survivors is really important to us,” said Mitch Barker, a former police chief and executive director of the sheriffs and police chiefs association. “[It gives] them that heads up that they might want to be extra vigilant.”

The new law also requires that information on failed gun purchases gets uploaded into the computer system that police officers use in the field. That way officers can see if someone they run a check on was blocked from buying a gun.

Barker said many people who fail a background check honestly don’t know they are prohibited. He also pointed out someone intent on doing harm can get a gun on the black market. But still he sees value in the new law.

“I think it’s a good tool in the toolkit for domestic violence survivors and for officers on the street,” Barker said. “It certainly does not replace all the normal precautions that they need to take.”

Hundreds of failed gun purchases

While the new law doesn't require police to follow-up on these cases, a pilot program will soon allow Washington police agencies to apply for grant money to investigate failed gun buyers.

Since late July, gun dealers across Washington have reported more than 270 failed gun purchases. That includes two people who made more than one attempt in a short period of time. Both were reported to the police.

Even though Teague is not thrilled with the new law, he said gun dealers do have a responsibility to help keep guns out of the wrong hands.

“We make a living by this stuff and got to be able to sleep at night,” Teague said.

This story was reported 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."