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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Initiative didn’t strengthen gun safety, it added stigma, layers of bureaucracy

There will always be entrepreneurs and politicians ready to play on fear. Fear pushes expensive bulletproof backpacks. Fear pushes enhanced background checks.

And we keep using that phrase, but it does not mean what you probably think it means.

Initiative 1639 raised the age for buying a rifle to 21 and requires an “enhanced background check.” Handgun purchases already required a background check, which used to be waived if the buyer already had a valid concealed carry permit. It’s the same check. There’s nothing enhanced about it.

These background checks include searches for outstanding warrants in the Washington State Patrol electronic database. They also include mental health checks with the Washington State Health Care Authority.

It has increased the paperwork per purchase or transfer at every step. Handgun background checks used to go straight to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The workload on local law enforcement has increased considerably under the unfunded mandate.

“We have an incredible group of employees working hard to get requests back in the 10-day window,” said John O’Brien, Public Information Officer with the Spokane Police Department. And they’re doing it.

The Healthcare Authority hired one new full-time staff member to manage the increased paperwork.

“The mental health background check for semi-automatic rifles is the same as the background check HCA conducts for pistols and concealed pistol licenses,” said Kara Panek, Behavioral Health Programs Supervisor for the HCA.

The information in the Health Care Authority database is limited to individuals who received a hearing under the Involuntary Treatment Act and were ordered to mental health treatment for a period of more than 14 days.

According to a Washington State Institute for Public Policy study ordered by the legislature in 2015, there were about 20,000 ITA investigations annually between 2008 and 2014. Of those individuals, 17% didn’t meet the criteria for treatment, 31% were referred for voluntary treatment and only 52% were eventually placed under an involuntary order.

“These are a very, very small subset of people receiving mental health treatment,” said Panek. “The waiver on the firearms applications sounds broad, but it’s very narrow.”

The FAQ page on Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s website says the HCA will be flagging mental health problems “such as records of individuals found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity.” That’s deliberately misleading. Defendants ruled Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity would turn up under the criminal background check, are not tracked by the HCA, and are extremely rare at less than 25 annually. But it’s a great fear tactic to point to mental illness and the scary specter of insane criminals run amok when you’re determined to push an agenda in spite of the data.

“When mental health gets stigmatized with a tie to gun violence, it may reduce the likelihood of someone seeking treatment,” said Panek.

Seeking voluntary treatment from a doctor or other mental health professional will not lead to removal of gun rights. And it won’t show up on a background check, enhanced or otherwise.

Public service announcement: Please, for the sake of yourself, your family and your friends, talk to somebody if you’re struggling.

The WSU Police Department used to have ample opportunities to talk to the young men and women safely storing firearms on campus. Not anymore. The Attorney General’s office advised the Washington State Patrol that a police department checking a firearm out to its lawful owner counted as a “transfer” under I-1639, requiring a background check each time.

The result is mind-bogglingly stupid.

Say a student submitted her paperwork ten days before the start of hunting season. She’s cleared to pick up her rifle on Saturday morning and heads out for the day but the deer are elusive. She dutifully checks her rifle back into safe storage for the night.

Except going back the next morning to pick up her lawfully owned rifle counts as another transfer of ownership under the Attorney General’s opinion, requiring a new application and another ten day wait for processing.

“It’s not that we couldn’t have offered storage, but it would have been a burden on everyone,” said Steve Hansen, WSU PD Assistant Chief. “We used to have an opportunity to visit with students as they checked their firearms in and out of storage. We had the potential to get a feel for a wrong situation. We’ve lost that relationship.”

Next on the Attorney General’s agenda is to “develop a process to verify – at least once a year – that the owner of a pistol or semiautomatic assault rifle remains eligible to possess a firearm under state and federal law.” That has the potential for a whole new level of bureaucratic stupidity.

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