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Washington’s gun background check system needs fix, report says

In this 2013 file photo, handguns are displayed on a vendor’s table at an annual gun show. (Philip Kamrass / Associated Press)
In this 2013 file photo, handguns are displayed on a vendor’s table at an annual gun show. (Philip Kamrass / Associated Press)
By Martha Bellisle Associated Press

SEATTLE – Washington state’s system for conducting background checks on people trying to buy firearms is fragmented and “specific improvements” are needed, according to a report released by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Under the current system, 260 local law enforcement agencies conduct background checks when someone in their jurisdiction wants to buy a handgun or get a concealed pistol license, the report said. The system is complex and inconsistent and should be streamlined, Ferguson said. The state should ensure that resources are available for timely and complete input of data, he said.

People buying rifles and shotguns are checked through a federal database.

Ferguson’s office conducted an access-to-firearms study in response to an executive order that Gov. Jay Inslee issued in January, “citing the public health implications of gun-related violence, crime, fatalities and injuries,” the report said.

The order noted that firearm deaths in Washington state exceed motor vehicle deaths, and about 80 percent of gun deaths are suicides.

Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee said Wednesday that the governor has not had a chance to review the report.

Several parts of the governor’s executive order are in the works, she said. The Office of Financial Management is trying to determine the effectiveness of information sharing between courts, law enforcement and others. The Department of Health is working on a suicide prevention plan.

Both state and federal laws prohibit certain people from possessing firearms, but the two don’t always line up, the report said.

While recent legislation brought Washington in line with federal laws concerning firearms and mental health issues, the state law should be expanded to include a ban on firearms possession for people “who pose a high risk to themselves or others,” and the measure should include due-process protections.

Washington state doesn’t have a law that connects possessing firearms to the use of controlled substances unless using drugs result in a serious crime, the report said. But federal law prohibits firearm possession by an illegal drug user or addict.

“The legalization of recreational and medical marijuana in Washington and other states poses a challenge for both potential gun buyers and the states,” Ferguson said. A federal appeals court and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have sided with federal law, the report said.

“Officials in Washington should appeal to Congress and the federal ADF to allow legal access to firearms for individuals whose use or possession of marijuana is legal under state law,” Ferguson recommended.

The state should develop a system that allows law enforcement agencies to share information about people who tried to buy a gun but failed the background check, the report said. Those gun shoppers could face prosecution, he said. Washington should also improve its system for restoring the right to possess firearms for certain people who have lost that right, the report said.

The unsafe storage of firearms has resulted in death or injury, especially involving children, the report said. In Washington, about 24,000 youths live in homes with unlocked and loaded firearms, the report said.

Ferguson recommended a law that creates a criminal penalty for gun owners who don’t safely secure a firearm, if the owner knows it can be accessed by a minor.

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