A new gun law in Washington state that lets domestic violence survivors find out if their abusers illegally attempt to buy a gun is detailing the number of failed background checks, with officials reporting 1,231 denied applications — including 71 by people who are named in active protective orders.
The Washington law is believed to be the first of its kind; it includes two key provisions: one that requires licensed gun sellers to report failed background checks, and another that gives people who are living under protective orders a way to receive an alert when someone named in a court order tries and fails to buy a firearm.
The law also requires the Washington State Patrol to incorporate the records about failed background checks into databases that are searchable by a wide range of law enforcement agencies.
As member station Northwest News Network reported after the new requirements became official, "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."
In the first five months of the new law being in force, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs say retailers reported:
71 individuals were named in active protective orders;
1,231 denied applications for the purchase or transfer of a firearm;
152 reports referred to local law enforcement;
49 individuals made multiple attempts;
Alliance for Gun Responsibility CEO Renee Hopkins tells Northwest News Network's Austin Jenkins, "The information that their abuser is trying to buy a firearm could literally save their lives."
She added, "It gives them the power to be able to plan for their safety and in most situations their children's safety as well."
In addition to the figures cited above, the state police association reported that in 55 cases, individuals were "denied purchase or transfer after a firearm was sold or transferred" — and in 49 of those cases, the firearm had not been returned to the licensed gun seller.
The new law, HB 1501, took effect in July after being approved with strong support in Washington's legislature. Its notification requirements apply to individuals who are barred from possessing firearms due to being named in:
stalking protection orders;
sexual assault protection orders;
harassment related no-contact orders;
anti-harassment protection orders;
domestic violence protection or no-contact orders;
restraining orders related to a dissolution, legal separation, or parentage proceeding;
foreign protection orders properly filed with a Washington court.
A 1996 federal law made it illegal for people convicted of domestic abuse to buy a firearm. But as incidents like the recent church massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas, have shown, enforcement of that and similar background-check laws has sometimes been undermined by inconsistencies in record-keeping.
In the Sutherland Springs shooting, the assailant was able to buy an assault-style rifle and two handguns, despite having a known record of domestic violence that resulted in his being court-martialed by the Air Force. The service had failed to report his conviction to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Weeks after that shooting, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill with the goal of improving background checks for gun sales and track domestic violence.
According to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, "More than half of all women murdered in the United States are killed by an intimate partner with a gun."
The group adds, "Even when a weapon is not discharged, abusers often use the mere presence of a gun to coerce, threaten and terrorize their victims, inflicting enormous psychological damage."