OLYMPIA – Three dozen legislators are taking the Washington State Patrol to task for sending a letter to gun dealers that they fear is an unconstitutional “fishing expedition.”
The patrol, which is searching for one of its semiautomatic rifles that might have been stolen, concedes the letter from an investigator “was not as well worded as it should be,” WSP spokesman Bob Calkins said. “We touched a nerve we had no intention of touching.”
A new letter is going out to gun dealers stressing that any information they might provide is voluntary, Calkins said.
The patrol is investigating whether one of its own AR-15s is missing. It may simply be a paperwork problem, Calkins said, but it may be stolen. He declined further comment on the weapon because of the ongoing investigation.
The investigator in Tacoma sent a letter to gun dealers seeking documents and sales lists of any AR-15 the dealers sold or purchased since last July 1, plus the names, birth dates, phone numbers and sale dates of the purchaser.
The letter from House and Senate members, written by state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, said they were alarmed the patrol seems to be asking for purchase histories and personal information of all AR-15s purchased from a private party.
“This appears to be a massive fishing expedition reminiscent of colonial era ‘general warrants,’ in disregard of the constraints imposed by the Constitutions of the United States and Washington state,” the letter says. It was co-signed by 35 other members of the House and Senate, including most Republicans from Spokane-area districts.
In Colonial times, general warrants issued by British officials granted almost limitless searches and arresting authority to the military or law enforcement. They were outlawed by the Fourth Amendment.
Calkins said the March 9 letter was like a beat cop investigating a crime on a street corner and asking passers-by and local businesses if they’d seen anything. It was a request for information, not a demand, but “it could have been more clear that it was a request,” he said. A new letter to gun dealers, sent Tuesday, will attempt to make that clear.
The agency has heard from many legislators by phone already and is working on a reply to the signers of the letter, which it received Wednesday, Calkins said.