OLYMPIA — Had lawmakers passed new rules governing sales of semiautomatic rifles, it could have been months — if not years — before details of any transactions made it into a state firearms database relied upon by law enforcement officers.
That’s because the database, which now only deals with handguns, lacks information on the make, model, serial number and caliber of weapons sold dating back to early 2015.
The backlog reached 478,006 pistol transfer records at the end of February, according to the state Department of Licensing, which maintains the database.
This year the agency didn’t ask and, ironically, lawmakers did allot $382,000 in the supplemental state budget to tackle the problem.
It happened after Democratic senators learned a suite of gun-related bills they were pushing would, if enacted, put further strain on the department’s ability to ensure all the data is up to date.
In particular, there was concern about a bill that would have raised the age for purchasing a semiautomatic rifle and required background checks on buyers. It would have mandated, for the first time, that information from semiautomatic rifle sales be put in the database.
“I explained that if you add another type of weapon to the database, I don’t think it can handle it,” recalled Beau Perschbacher, the agency’s legislative and policy director.
It wasn’t a hard sell.
“We thought let’s take care of the backlog and clear the way” for the bills, said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and the chamber’s chief budget writer.
With extra funding secured, the next step is figuring out how it should be best spent.
A year ago, agency leaders talked of hiring a data-entry firm to do the work and predicted the backlog — which was roughly 150,000 fewer records — could be erased in six months.
They may not follow that course now. Department officials want to switch to a new system and are finding out about different options. They could settle on something in 2019. They want to understand how efforts to clear the backlog might, or might not, align with any transition.
“We are still working on what will be the most effective way to use those dollars to alleviate the problem,” said Stephanie Sams, a policy and legislative analyst for the agency.
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 from the courts and law enforcement agencies on people obtaining or renewing a concealed pistol license and those who are ineligible to possess a firearm due to a court order or because they are deemed mentally unfit. Agency officials say this specific information is current in the database.
It’s been difficult keeping up with gun sale records.
In its 2017 budget request, the department said it receives 240,000 records per year of firearm sales and licenses. Of those, 85 percent are submitted on paper and must be entered manually into the database.
What concerns agency leaders about the backlog is the potential safety risk of law enforcement officers who are not getting a complete picture of what firearms a person may have purchased.
For example, if a person who is not supposed to possess a firearm bought one at some point in the recent past, the database would be the place to find out. That wouldn’t happen, though, if the record of the sale is stuck in the backlog.
In last year’s budget request, agency officials made their concerns pretty blunt.
“Law enforcement officers’ inability to electronically access pistol sale and transfer information on a CPL (concealed pistol license) holder deemed by the courts to be ineligible to possess a firearm presents a risk to public safety,” read the request.
And they cautioned in that same request, the backlog poses a risk “of misinforming, delaying, or impeding” law enforcement agencies in the course of their work.
They use this system a lot. Officers from city, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies will check it more than 2 million times a year, agency officials estimate.
It is seen as a good starting point for an officer when they have to track a firearm for investigation, said Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. And when a stolen firearm is recovered, the serial number can be punched in to find the legal owner to whom it can be returned, he said.
But it is not their only option. 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.
That’s important because with so many missing records in the state system, officers know it is not always going to be useful, Strachan said.
“The fact that it’s been so far behind is a concern,” he said. “Any time a database is more robust and more accurate and up-to-date is good for law enforcement.”