Local Election

Background checks take some time and require a bit of paperwork

Buyers and sellers of guns at licensed firearms dealers already know about the paperwork involved in a background check for a gun purchase.

It’s the same paperwork that would be required of all sales and transfers, including those by private sellers, if Initiative 594 passes.

First, there is Form 4473 issued by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It enables a dealer to order a background check on a buyer.

The form runs six pages but only three require information and only one directly from the buyer, who must supply a name, address, place of birth, height and weight, gender and date of birth. Applicants must also answer yes or no to 13 questions that attempt to verify the buyer is the real recipient of the firearm and determine that the buyer is not a fugitive, under indictment, convicted of a felony, addicted to narcotics, adjudicated mentally defective, under court restraining orders or convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence.

The seller or dealer also must fill in details about the firearm, identification details for the buyer, and the results of a national background check done through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.

“I have to retain the form for 20 years,” said Miles de Mille, owner of MD Firearms near the Tacoma Dome. “I have to physically take their ID and write down the information.”

For handgun sales, sellers and buyers must complete an additional step: a one-page pistol-transfer application for the state Department of Licensing. It asks for a description of the firearm including make, country of origin and identifying numbers; as well as a statement by the buyer that includes date and place of birth, height, weight, gender, address and whether he or she is a citizen.

De Mille says that once he has the signed papers, he contacts local law enforcement to carry out the required background checks on handguns or the FBI for long guns.

Sending the data to the authorities can take but a few minutes. How long he waits for a reply is what varies — state law allows up to five business days to approve, deny or just let the transaction proceed.

For rifles, a person receiving the go-ahead to take a weapon home the same day is typical. Handguns require a wait — unless the buyer has a concealed pistol license that fast-tracks the process and can lead to same-day purchases, de Mille said.


I-594 would not change the basic process, but it would possibly force a longer wait by extending the time for gun delivery to 10 days.

The measure also would send more gun sellers and buyers to licensed dealers to carry out the background checks. Phil Shave of Washington Arms Collectors says firearm dealers charge anywhere from $30 to $50 per transfer.

A state Office of Financial Management estimate is DOL would handle an extra 13,440 handgun transfers a year, but Shave thinks that figure is way too low. The FBI reports it did 561,122 checks on all kinds of firearms in Washington last year, and Shave thinks there could be as many as that additional that require background checks under the proposed law.

The value of background checks is a matter of debate in the campaign, but FBI data shows 4.6 million checks have been carried out in Washington since the national instant check system went online in 1998.

Everytown For Gun Safety, a national gun advocacy group helping I-594’s campaign, obtained additional FBI data under a Freedom of Information Act request. It reported that 40,976 gun transfers were denied in Washington since 1998. That figure is not in dispute by backers of Initiative 591, the measure that would not let the state enact tougher background check requirements than are required under federal law.

The FBI keeps data breaking down reasons for rejections but that information is not readily available. Everytown’s analysis of records showed that reasons for rejected sales in Washington were similar to national rates — with 24,028 denied sales because of convictions for crimes punishable by more than a year or a misdemeanor punishable by more than two years. Another 3,375 transfers were denied because of convictions for domestic violence and 2,852 due to protection or restraining orders stemming from domestic violence.

The background checks by local police for handgun purchases include a review of information on file at the FBI’s NICS system, just as the federal checks on long gun sales do. But the state check takes a closer look by doing a direct check of state criminal and court records and mental-health records of involuntary commitments, according to Lt. Cliff Ziesemer, supervisor of civil and detective divisions for the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office.

“We also check our own local system in Thurston County and our local court system to see if anything is pending. So it’s a fairly extensive check,” Ziesemer said.


In only about 30 to 40 cases a year does a court-ordered mental health commitment of at least 14 days disqualify the applicant, according to the Department of Social and Health Services. The agency does about 200,000 checks a year at the request of police doing background checks for gun sales and concealed pistol license applications, spokesman John Wiley said.

“It’s pretty unusual to deny somebody,’’ Laura Wohl, administrative services manager for Olympia Police, said of rejected gun transfers and concealed pistol licenses.

Olympia Police handled 486 pistol transfers this year through mid-September, denying just four. It is expecting to see its numbers rise from roughly 60 a month to perhaps 72 or 84.

The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, which handles rural areas, authorized 3,110 pistol transfers through September this year, while denying sales in 18 cases, Ziesemer said.

In Pierce County, many background checks are carried out by South Sound 911, a consortium that handles checks for Tacoma Police, the county Sheriff’s Department, and Lakewood Police. South Sound 911 reported doing 19,443 pistol transfer applications this year as of mid-September, with 86 denied, spokeswoman Kris McNamar said.

Department of Licensing data show a steady year-to-year increase in handgun sales — from 76,400 in 2007 to 170,792 in 2012 and 193,874 in 2013. Denials of pistol transfers appear to vary by year — hitting 333 in 2007 and 2009, 300 in 2010 and 591 in 2012 before falling to 360 last year.

The agency does not keep a record of why denials are made, nor do local police agencies.

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