A search for a missing Washington State Patrol rifle has sparked a statewide outcry by gun dealers and gun-rights advocates.
The controversy followed a March 9 letter sent to gun dealers throughout Washington state by WSP Detective Juli Gundermann. The letter asked for information about a "missing/stolen AR-15" and requested dealers provide detailed purchase histories and personal identifying information for all AR-15 sales over the past nine months.
The AR-15 is the semiautomatic civilian version of the military's M-16 rifle.
The letter prompted the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action to send out an email alert Monday to members accusing the WSP of conducting an "apparent fishing expedition." That, in turn, led to calls and emails to legislators, which resulted in 36 lawmakers co-signing a letter sent Tuesday to WSP Chief John Batiste protesting the WSP's actions.
In an email to legislators the same day, WSP Capt. Jason Berry said "we sincerely regret any alarm that was caused or confusion about our motive. We are not creating any sort of registry of these transactions, we are merely trying to solve this specific case."
Berry and patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said investigators are working to determine if the missing rifle has been stolen or simply misplaced. "We knew very quickly that this gun was not where it was supposed to be," Calkins said, but with 1,100 troopers in the organization the chance for an inventory error is possible.
Calkins said the March 9 letter should have been clearer in stating the WSP was requesting, not demanding, information. He and Berry both said the situation was similar to when police canvass the area of a crime asking people for information. A new letter is going out to gun dealers stressing that any information they might provide is voluntary, Calkins said.
The letter from House and Senate members, written by state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, repeated the charge made in the NRA-ILA alert.
"This appears to be a massive fishing expedition reminiscent of colonial-era 'general warrants' in disregard of the constraints imposed by the Constitutions of the United States and Washington state," Shea wrote. He said lawmakers "are very concerned about this situation," and requested a formal response by March 30.
State Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton joined the 35 other legislators in signing the letter.
According to an article by Dave Workman posted on examiner.com, a reproduction of the WSP's March 9 letter on the Northwest Firearms forum "ignited a furious discussion among Northwest gun owners speculating about the WSP's motives and intentions."
Workman also reported that after the March 9 letter went out, "dealers began calling the Seattle office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, demanding to know what was going on." He wrote that an ATF spokeswoman told him the WSP did not consult with the BATFE about the letter.
In an update sent out Wednesday, the NRA-ILA reported the March 9 letter was sent to more than 1,000 firearms dealers in Washington state and that the patrol "acknowledges that they would handle the request for assistance differently if they could do it over again."
The update also claimed the WSP "reported that they have a specific suspect" in the case and the agency was "trying to find that particular name in the records of one of the dealers so they can make a case against the individual."
But Calkins on Wednesday flatly denied that this was the case.
"There is absolutely not an identified suspect. We don't know where they got that, but it's not correct," he said in an email.
Andy Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.
Missing WSP AR-15 Rifle Letters