State gun database lacks info on thousands of handgun sales

OLYMPIA, Wash.  — A state firearms database relied upon by law enforcement officers lacks information on the sale of thousands of handguns in Washington in the past two years.

The state Department of Licensing ended September with a backlog of 327,753 pistol transfers to enter into the database used daily by city, county, state and federal authorities for a variety of investigative purposes.

Last week agency employees were inputting make, model, serial number and caliber of weapon on purchases made in 2014, as well as information on those who bought the guns.

Agency leaders predict the backlog, which stood at 106,000 records in November 2013, will reach 385,000 records by June 2017. They are seeking $382,000 in the next state budget to hire a private data entry firm to catch up. Gov. Jay Inslee included the sum in his proposed budget released Dec. 14.

If the department secures the money, the goal is to hire a vendor and erase the backlog by the end of 2017, said agency spokesman Brad Benfield.

"What we need to do is get caught up and make sure it is useful for the purpose outlined in law," he said.

In Washington, the Department of Licensing is tasked with collecting data from sales of handguns by licensed firearms dealers and getting those details into the database.

It also inputs information on people obtaining or renewing a concealed pistol license and those who cannot legally possess a gun, either due to a court order or because they are deemed mentally unfit. Agency officials say this specific information is current.

It's not been easy for the state agency to keep up with gun sales because the number of those keeps climbing.

Licensed firearm dealers sold 67,739 pistols in 2006 and all but 315 of the records got into the database, according to agency documents. In 2012, handgun sales totaled 170,792 and agency staff managed to enter 66,528 into the system.

In its budget request, the department said it receives 240,000 records per year of firearm sales and licenses, 85 percent of which are submitted on paper. In those instances, data must be entered manually, Benfield said.

What concerns agency leaders about the backlog is the potential safety risk of a law enforcement officer not getting "a complete picture of what firearms (a person) may have purchased," Benfield said.

For example, a person who is not supposed to possess a firearm could have bought one at some point in the recent past. The database would be the place to find out but not if the record of the sale is stuck in the backlog, he explained.

"We want our database to be accurate," Benfield said.

And for good reason — it's used a lot.

Officers from city, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies will check the database more than 2 million times this year alone. Agency records show they tapped into it 691,193 times between July 1 and Sept. 30, an average of 7,679 times a day.

"It is an essential need for law enforcement. We wish it was up-to-date because we've got to have that information," said Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

It's a tremendous tool for investigating the history and ownership of a gun, he said.

And in situations where officers recover a weapon that's been stolen, they can check serial numbers in the database to find the legal owner but only if the information is current, he said.

The state agency's firearms database isn't the only available to law enforcement. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives manages the National Tracing Center which law enforcement officers can use for investigating the source of weapons made in the United States or overseas.

The importance of ensuring timely and accurate information in databases became evident in the conviction of Raymond Fryberg for illegally possessing firearms, including the gun that his son used in the deadly Marysville Pilchuck High School shootings in 2014.

Raymond Fryberg was the subject of a 2002 domestic violence protection order in Tulalip Tribal Court that forbade him from owning guns. But he continued to buy guns without a problem because the order was not entered into any state or federal database that can be checked during firearm purchases and during contacts with police.

In October, Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued a report on access to firearms in Washington in response to a request from the governor. In it, Ferguson wrote the effectiveness of the department of licensing's database "depends on the agency's ability to keep up with the workload of inputting data, and the ability of the agency to communicate that information to those who need it."

Ferguson recommended the governor "determine the best way to ensure that the Washington Department of Licensing's firearms system contains accurate and timely records of pistol transfer applications, alien firearms licenses, and concealed pistol licenses and that the information is available to those who need it."

Agency leaders' request for funding to deal with the problem has gone unmet for several years. Meanwhile, changes have been made to get data uploaded more efficiently though there is still a need for money to tackle the backlog, Benfield said.

He said lawmakers' reluctance is probably a result of too much demand for a limited supply of dollars after the Great Recession when every agency cut back.

"We feel it is important, but the Legislature has to make a lot of tough decisions each year and hasn't gotten to this one yet," Benfield said.

There is a political element too as some lawmakers and gun rights groups want to see databases collecting information on firearm owners go away, Barker said.

"Funding is a big issue," Barker said. "But there's some political will to not make this work properly. Combine that with the funding concerns and this makes it an easy request to kill."