A look at the state’s current background check law
OLYMPIA, Wash. — Voters in Washington state will soon weigh in on two competing measures dealing with background checks on gun sales.
Initiative 594 would expand background checks to all gun sales and transfers in Washington state, including at gun shows and person-to-person sales. Initiative 591 would prevent the state from adopting background-check laws that go beyond the national standard, which requires the checks for sales by licensed dealers but not for purchases from private sellers.
Here’s a look at some facts surrounding the current law.
CURRENT LAW IN WASHINGTON: Anyone buying a gun from a licensed dealer — at a store, gun show, or online — has to go through a background check. That check screens the buyer to make sure they aren’t a felon, a fugitive, or in the country illegally, among other disqualifiers. Private sales and transfers don’t currently require a background check under state or federal law, however, under state law, private sellers can’t sell a firearm to another person who they know or have reasonable cause to believe can’t legally possess it.
WHAT IS INVOLVED IN A BACKGROUND CHECK? People buying a long gun — such as a rifle or shotgun — from a licensed dealer fill out a federal form and the information is run through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). If the purchaser passes the check, they can take the long gun home immediately. The process is different for someone buying a handgun from a licensed dealer. In that case, they also fill out a separate state form that firearm seller then sends on to the local law enforcement agency where the buyer lives. Local law enforcement checks both NICS and local and state records, including the state Department of Health and Social Services. The would-be buyer must wait up to five days before taking possession of the handgun while the more extensive check is run; that waiting period can extend up to 60 days if the buyer doesn’t have a valid Washington state ID or hasn’t been a resident of the state for the previous 90 days. If the person buying a handgun has a concealed pistol license, they have an expedited process and can leave the store with their handgun as soon as they are approved by the initial NICS check, as long as they have a Washington state ID. The local form is still sent on to local law enforcement to do the more thorough background check. People who have concealed pistol licenses go through a full federal and state background check to get the permit, and need to do an updated background check every five years in order to renew their license.
HOW MANY CHECKS ARE RUN EACH YEAR IN WASHINGTON? The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System processed more than 560,000 firearm background checks in Washington state last year, and has processed more than 346,000 between January and the end of September of this year, according the system’s online report. That number doesn’t include the number of additional checks run by local law enforcement for handgun purchases. According to a 2013 report from the Washington State Patrol, the FBI denied more than 2,000 transactions that year and Washington law enforcement agencies denied an additional 868 sales that year based on additional local and state checks, such as mental health denials.
WHO IS PROHIBITED FROM HAVING A FIREARM? Convicted felons, fugitives from justice, drug users and/or addicts, people who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions, those in the country illegally, people who have been dishonorably discharged from the U.S. military, people who have renounced their citizenship, people under restraining orders for harassment or stalking of a partner or child; people convicted of domestic violence.
HOW MANY MORE CHECKS MIGHT OCCUR IF INITIATIVE 594 PASSES? Supporters have said that the number is hard to predict, since the size of the private market in the state is unknown. However, they point to a fiscal note prepared by the state Office of Financial Management that shows a state Department of Licensing projection based on Colorado’s experience with expanded checks that estimated that checks for private sales and transfers would make up about 2 percent of all checks conducted in the state: about 13,440 new background checks in Washington state through July of next year. That estimate grows to 35,481 new checks for the 2015-17 biennium, and to 51,093 for the 2017-19 biennium.
WHAT CHANGES IF I-594 PASSES? Personal transactions that do not already involve a dealer would require a background check, and the person selling or transferring a firearm would either need to meet the potential buyer at a licensed dealer, who would run the check, or, if the seller were shipping the firearm, they would ship it to a dealer in the city where the potential buyer lives. I-594 allows for licensed dealers to charge a “fee that reflects the fair market value of the administrative costs and efforts incurred by the licensed dealer for facilitating the sale or transfer of the firearm.” Also under the measure, the wait period to take possession of a handgun for those who don’t have concealed pistol licenses extends from five to 10 days unless the background check is completed before then.