The state of Washington has long been a leader in gun control legislation. It was the first state to require universal background checks on the purchase of all firearms in 2014. On July 23, 2017 Washington demonstrated its leadership again, becoming the first state to let domestic violence survivors and other victims know when their abuser tries to illegally purchase a firearm.

The notification requirement is part of a broader bill that requires firearms dealers and store owners to alert the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs after someone fails a background check. Most applicants who are denied a firearm through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NCIS) are rejected because of a prior criminal conviction, restraining order or another past issue. Firearms dealers who provide the federal form to potential purchasers are instructed to immediately turn away applicants if they acknowledge a past conviction or other prior issue without conducting the FBI check. Applicants whose forms are submitted to the FBI and later denied are typically denied because they failed to acknowledge their criminal record on their application form. These attempts to illegally acquire a firearm by providing a false application have become known as “lie and try” attempts. Even though it is a federal offense, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, to lie on a background form, police rarely, if ever investigate these cases. Eight states, including Pennsylvania, Tennessee, California, Colorado, Illinois, Utah, Oregon, and Virginia have passed “lie and try” policies requiring firearms dealers to notify local law enforcement whenever someone fails the background check. Most states only require that law enforcement be notified about a rejected purchaser; there is no mandate that police act on the information. However, Virginia, Oregon, and Pennsylvania compel police to investigate every denied sale. Washington’s new legislation seeks to empower victims by providing them information necessary to plan for their own safety.

Adding firearms to the domestic violence equation often increases the lethality of attacks and expands the number of victims. One study found that abused women are five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if the abuser owns a firearm.1 Abusers intent on killing their partner often kill other people who happen to be on scene including children, grandparents, police officers, and total strangers. An analysis of FBI data from mass shootings from 2009 to 2015 found that 54% were related to domestic or family violence.2 The most effective intervention against firearm violence is keeping firearms out of the hands of those who would commit it.

The law requires vendors to notify law enforcement of a NICS denial, as well as a notification system for all victims of stalking, domestic, or sexual violence whose abusers were convicted in court or have obtained a court-ordered restraining order. That notification system is already used to alert victims if a protection order is served or will soon expire. Additionally, the legislation provides grant programs to aid authorities in conducting investigations into failed attempts to purchase firearms. Washington is once again leading the way with this enlightened legislation that seeks not only to increase the prosecution of “lie and try” attempts but also to increase survivor safety.

See the language of Washington’s law here.

  1. Jacquelyn C. Campbell et al., Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results from a Multisite Case Control Study, 93 Am. J. Pub. Health 1089, 1092 (July 2003).

  2. Analysis of F.B.I. data conducted by Everytown:

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