State’s handgun database lags far behind sales

OLYMPIA — Washington residents are buying handguns faster than information on the buyers, sellers and weapons can be put into the state’s firearms database used by law enforcement.

The Department of Licensing began November with a backlog of about 106,000 pistol transfers to enter into the database used by city, county and state authorities to find owners of handguns that turn up during investigations.

Last week, employees in the state agency were handling purchases made in March, punching in details on the make, model, serial number and caliber of weapons, as well as who bought them.

With existing staff unable to catch up, the department is asking the governor and lawmakers for $409,000 in next year’s supplemental budget to hire several part-timers to clear away the paperwork that is piling up.

“We’re required by law to keep up this database,” said agency spokeswoman Christine Anthony, noting that hard copies of each sale exist and can be searched by hand if necessary. “We see this as a public safety issue that law enforcement should be able to access this information from their vehicle.”

While it doesn’t appear the situation is causing any trouble, law enforcement leaders want it taken care of because the database, known as ACCESS, is heavily used.

Officers from city, county and state law enforcement agencies tapped into it 1.7 million times in 2012. And most were unaware it lacked information on thousands of gun sales.

“It is very important to us. We certainly want it updated as much as possible,” said Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

There are five full-time employees in the Department of Licensing’s Firearms Program who feed in data as well as deal with applicants for handgun licenses and questions from firearm dealers.

There’s more data than just handgun sales. They also input information on the people obtaining or renewing a concealed pistol license and those who cannot legally possess a gun because they are deemed mentally unfit, Anthony said.

Last year, there were records for 104,133 conceal and carry permits and 8,343 people added to the Ineligible to Possess Firearms list, DOL records show. The agency is up to date in both those categories, she said.

Sales of rifles and long guns are not part of the database, nor are records of private handgun sales unless the seller decides to turn in paperwork on their own.

What is causing the backlog is a near tripling of handgun sales in seven years.

In 2006, licensed firearm dealers sold 67,739 pistols and sent in the records. All but 315 got into the database. The following year, 76,400 sales were recorded and the paperwork for roughly 1,500 didn’t get handled.

By 2011, when handgun sales hit 133,257, the department had again fallen behind and agency leaders spent $135,628 in overtime to get caught up.

But it didn’t last long.

In 2012, handgun sales totaled 170,792 and the staff managed to enter 66,528 into the system. This year, sales through mid-November already exceed last year’s total and are prompting the request for extra funding for temporary help.

Barker said he wasn’t surprised to hear the agency had fallen months behind, but did not think any investigations have been affected.

“If you weren’t aware of the backlog, you wouldn’t know it’s a problem,” he said. “But if they are that far behind with a database that we access that often, it is a problem.”

Lt. Shane Nelson of the Washington State Patrol expressed a similar view. He said the state database is “not instrumental” and others are available if needed.

“It hasn’t affected or impacted us in any way that I’ve noticed,” said Nelson, who works in the criminal investigation division. “I don’t feel this is going be any kind of impact to how we do our investigations.”

The fact that the backlog isn’t generating much hue and cry for cops is a good reason to get rid of it, said a leader of a national gun rights group based in Bellevue.

“They are so far behind, there isn’t any real usefulness to it,” said Alan Gottlieb of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. “We’re told tracing stolen guns is a reason to have it. The ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) gun tracing center has better data anyway.”

Gottlieb would keep the part of the database containing information on those who are ineligible to carry a weapon because of their mental health or criminal convictions.

“Tracking the good guys doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Tracking the bad guys makes a lot of sense.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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