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News / Northwest

Washington state gun sales spike, then plummet as new laws take effect

Sales across the state were about half what they were in January and February of 2023

By David Gutman, The Seattle Times
Published: April 10, 2024, 7:33am

SEATTLE — Gun sales in Washington have fallen dramatically this year, according to federal background check data, as a suite of new state gun regulations took effect.

The drop-off in Washington sales in the first three months of 2024 is much more significant than the modest drop-off seen nationwide in the same period.

The decline follows a nearly unprecedented spike in Washington gun sales at this time last year, as gun buyers rushed to make purchases while state lawmakers debated and ultimately passed a ban on AR-15s and similar semiautomatic weapons that took effect immediately. Washington was the 10th state to ban the high-powered semiautomatic rifles.

On Jan. 1 of this year, a new law took effect requiring a 10-day waiting period and mandatory safety training for all gun purchases in the state.

Gun sales in Washington in January and February, as measured by background checks, were about half what they were in January and February of 2023 — about 19,000 per month this year, compared with about 38,000 per month last year. In March, there were a little more than 22,000 background checks for gun sales in Washington, down more than 70% from the more than 77,000 checks in March 2023.

Nationally, background checks fell by only about 11% through the first three months of the year.

Background checks, conducted by law enforcement, while not a perfect match, are considered the best available metric of gun sales, nationwide and on a state-by-state basis.

It’s not certain that Washington’s new laws spurred the rapid up and down swings in gun sales, but the circumstantial evidence is strong.

“We can’t say definitively whether these policy debates or the policies impacted sales numbers, but it would be consistent with events we’ve seen in other states,” Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee, who requested the legislation mandating waiting periods and training and the ban on AR-15-style weapons, wrote in an email. “The whole point of the assault weapons ban was to prevent weapons of war being sold and distributed in Washington. There’s no legitimate reason to have them in our communities.”

Just in the last year, Washington’s Democratic-controlled Legislature has passed the ban on AR-15-style weapons, the 10-day waiting period and mandatory training, a bill to hold gunmakers liable for negligent sales and a prohibition on carrying guns in libraries, zoos and transit facilities.

State lawmakers have required gun dealers to run annual background checks on their employees and implement video surveillance and security measures and required gun owners to report lost or stolen guns within 24 hours.

In recent years, Washington has enacted enhanced background checks and extreme-risk protection orders, allowing guns to be temporarily taken from people who a judge deems a significant risk of harm to themselves or others. It has also banned high-capacity magazines and prohibited open carry of guns at public demonstrations.

Multiple national groups rank Washington among the top 10 strictest states in the nation for gun laws.

Alan Gottlieb, founder and executive vice president of the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation, said last year’s sales surge was almost certainly driven by the looming ban on AR-15-style weapons, but disputed that the 10-day waiting period and mandatory training were having much effect.

Two things spur gun sales, said Gottlieb: crime rates and the possibility of new gun laws.

“Crime goes up, they want to buy a gun,” said Gottlieb, whose organization has sued the state over the semiautomatic-rifle ban and other gun legislation. “And the push for legislation, when people think they’re not going to be able to buy one.”

Background check data is a close, but not perfect, proxy for gun sales. Every legal gun sale in Washington, including those between two private individuals, requires a background check, which is logged by the FBI.

But not every background check results in a gun sale. About 1% of background checks result in a denial, and thus no sale, according to state data.

And one background check can result in multiple gun purchases — you can buy more than one gun on the same visit, with just one background check performed.

Washington began using a new background check system on Jan. 1 — a bipartisan initiative, unlike most gun legislation — a change invisible to gun buyers. The new system aims to run the same checks as the prior one, but is centralized and more streamlined.

Previously, when a prospective gun buyer went to a dealer, the dealer collected their information and, for some guns, sent it directly to the FBI for a background check. For other guns, the dealer sent the information, by email or fax, to the police department where the buyer lives, for a background check.

Now, dealers send information for all background checks to the Washington State Patrol, through a secure online portal.

Washington conducts “enhanced background checks,” meaning the State Patrol runs each background check on at least five databases: the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the state administrative office of the courts, the state Health Care Authority (looking for involuntary mental health commitments), a state law enforcement database (looking for warrants and protection orders), and a Northwest regional database (looking for recent arrests in nearby states).

A hit on any of them for past felonies, domestic violence convictions, involuntary commitment, protection orders or other offenses can prompt a denial.

“If you can have a firearm, you can have a firearm, I’m OK with that,” said Kateri Candee, the commander of the State Patrol’s Firearms Background Division. “But if you shouldn’t have a firearm because you have some stuff in your background, I don’t want you to have a firearm.”

The mandatory training before a gun purchase, which went into effect this year, may or may not be affecting sales, but it is not a difficult hurdle to clear.

Training is available online and is either free or available for minimal cost. One training option — near the top of online search results — can be completed in under five minutes.

Offered by a Vancouver gun shop, it features, as required by state law, information on basic gun safety, guns and children, safe gun storage, guns and suicide, state laws on using deadly force and conflict resolution.

It also includes information on protecting the Second Amendment, introducing new people to firearms, talking with “anti-gun citizens,” fundraising requests and pleas to “vote against anti-gun candidates.”

Of the 12 pages you need to click through to complete the training, seven are largely instruction and five are largely advocacy.

Once the training is complete, you can print a certificate attesting that you’ve met the requirements of the new law.

State Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle, lead sponsor of the law that required the trainings, laughed at some of the embedded advocacy.

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“The trainings are really easy to access, they’re not hard or cumbersome to do,” Berry said. “Lower gun sales is not a bad thing unless you’re a gun manufacturer or a gun dealer. We have more guns on the street in this country than we have Americans — it seems like there’s no shortage of guns.”