The battle over expanding background checks for firearms purchases becomes moot when the state can’t keep pace with the current level of information it must process from licensed dealers. By law, the Washington Department of Licensing must keep the database on such sales current, but the state hasn’t provided the agency with the resources it needs to do so.
Firearms sales from licensed dealers have soared in recent years, from 67,739 in 2006 to 170,792 in 2102, according to the Daily Herald of Everett. By mid-November of this year, sales had exceeded last year’s total, and the agency was still working on March transactions.
Meanwhile, two initiatives related to background checks on private gun sales (with some exceptions) are headed to the Legislature. Initiative 594 would require them. Initiative 591 would prevent them. Both appear to have a sufficient number of signatures to qualify for the ballot.
But if the state won’t provide the resources needed to enforce the current law, what’s the point of expanding it? Background check opponent Alan Gottlieb, of the Citizens Right to Keep and Bear Arms, seized upon the backlog news: “They are so far behind, there isn’t any usefulness to it.”
However, the database is useful, which is why the backlog is so frustrating. Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, says up-to-date information is important. State and local law enforcement agencies tapped into the database 1.7 million times in 2012, but most weren’t aware that tens of thousands of transactions had yet to be logged, the Daily Herald reported.
The answer is to give the Department of Licensing the resources it needs. The agency has five full-time employees to enter data and field inquiries. That was sufficient before the explosion in sales. It isn’t now, so DOL is requesting $409,000 in the upcoming supplemental budget. However, even that won’t be enough if background checks are expanded to private sales.
This is one reason lawmakers ought to face the issue head on rather than punt it to voters. Last spring, polls showed overwhelming support, but the Legislature declined to take on the powerful gun lobby. As the current backlog shows, the cost of such an initiative needs to be at the forefront of the debate. It does no good to support an idea if lawmakers aren’t willing to finance it.
Voters have been down that path in passing initiatives to limit class sizes in schools and increase teacher pay only to see them starved on the appropriations end. The only thing that grew was cynicism.
The backlog has handed the gun-rights lobby the first victory in the battle to thwart expanded background checks. Now, legislators must make it clear that they will finance the current law. Without that funding, efforts to expand the law will become an empty exercise.