Underfunded gun checks tap Walla Walla police staff, budget

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WALLA WALLA — Inadequate funding for a soaring number of gun background checks will result in reduced public office hours at the Walla Walla Police Department starting Monday.

An increase of roughly 200 percent in gun-related background checks since 2008, coupled with the loss of one of four police clerks to perform those checks, are the two main reasons the department will close its public lobby one hour earlier at 4 p.m.

By the numbers

Concealed pistol licenses in the Walla Walla area, provided by the Washington State Department of Licensing.

Number of active permits by ZIP code

99362 (WW) 2,408

99324 (CP) 467

Number of permits issued by agency per year with change from previous year

Walla Walla Police Department

2008 60 (+62.2%)

2009 95 (+58.3%)

2010 128 (+34.7%)

2011 156 (+21.8%)

2012 269 (+72.44%)

Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office

2008 351 (+137.2%)

2009 455 (+29.6%)

2010 471 (+3.5%)

2011 578 (+22.7%)

2012 713 (+23.4%)

College Place Police Department

2008 26 (+85.7%)

2009 38 (+46.2%)

2010 35 (-7.9%)

2011 51 (+45.7%)

2012 63 (+23.5%)

The cut in public hours will allow clerks to use the time to fill out critical time-sensitive documents, which include protection orders, public information requests and warrants. But of all the paperwork listed in a staff report by Police Chief Scott Bieber, gun-related background checks by far represent the largest increase in the workload for police clerks.

“We have been falling behind on some very critical and statutorily required records tasks,” Bieber wrote in an email to the Union-Bulletin. “Although the number of clerks went down, the work load remained the same — and in some cases even increased.”

Since 2008, the Walla Walla Police Department has seen a 133 percent increase in pistol-transfer background checks and a 247 percent increase in background checks related to concealed pistol licenses.

The excess work, coupled with the loss of one full-time clerk in 2011 because of budget cuts has resulted in the department trying a number of shift and personnel changes to keep from falling behind.

So far, Bieber said, clerks have tried closing a service window, working on weekends and even training volunteers to help free-up time for background checks and other critical documents. But none of those changes has allowed staff to meet the growing demand for police paperwork.

To make matters worse, funding is either limited or nonexistent for gun background checks, depending on which type is performed.

Currently, pistol transfer background checks have no funding source tied to them.

Last year, the department conducted 629 of those checks. Clerks doing those checks are paid $19.80 to $21.83 per hour, plus other taxpayer-funded benefits like health insurance and retirement plans.

The time it takes to do pistol transfer checks varies greatly and isn’t tracked by the department. But according to a department staff report, the low average per check is about 15 minutes if there are no delays and denials.

What that comes to is a minimum of $3,113 spent last year on determining if buyers were eligible to buy pistols from firearm dealers. And if there were denials or other delays, the costs would have increased.

Concealed pistol license background checks, on the other hand, have some funding for police departments.

Last year, the department processed 302 CPL checks. And for every $36-$50 collected in application fees, $14 was returned to the city as required by state law.

The time to process a new CPL application, however, runs an average of 45 minutes, according to the department. Renewals are around 35 minutes.

No relief in sight this year

Things are looking even more costly for the department this year.

As of May 17, still six weeks from the halfway mark for 2013, Walla Walla police clerks have already processed 387 pistol transfers. The total for all of the previous year was 629.

CPL background checks are also on the climb. Last year’s total for Walla Walla police clerks was 302; as of May 17, clerks processed 212 applications.

Numbers for the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office and College Place Police Department also show significant increases in recent years, as does the rest of the state.

According to 2002 statistics compiled through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, licensed gun dealers in Washington used the system a total of 193,439 times. In 2012 that number had more than doubled to 519,209.

The number does not represent total number of gun transfers, as many private party gun sales occur without NICS background checks.

NICS checks, mandated by the federal Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, began in 1998 are used to weed out buyers who are ineligible to purchase firearms or explosives because of felony convictions, domestic violence cases, certain restraining orders and other disqualifiers.

So why are background checks increasing each year?

In short, people are buying and transferring more guns. But reasons why people are buying more guns here and elsewhere are more complex and depend on one’s politics and position on guns. Online sources attribute the trend variously to a poor economy, a Democratic presidency, a perception of more violence, high-profile mass shootings and a belief that more gun control laws are on the horizon. And they may be.

Killed bill had funding clause

Had it passed the Washington state Legislature this year, HB-1588 would have required police background checks on all public and private gun transfers. Currently, dealers are the only groups that have to ask their local police department to conduct a background check for any pistol sales. But they are not required to do so for the sale of rifles and other long guns.

The legislation would have required local police background checks for both pistols and long guns and would have included private party sales.

“In Washington we have a commitment both to the CPL process, which requires a background check, and we have a commitment to further examine who gets a handgun,” said Zach Silk, a campaign manager with the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility.

“And those are important to make sure people who are able to carry a concealed weapon or own a handgun, that they are the right people to do that.”

Opponents, like the National Rifle Association’s legislative lobbying arm, argued that the bill would have been ineffective and eroded Second Amendment rights.

“This bill is nothing more than a regulatory scheme that would create a huge burden for law-abiding citizens, would be unenforceable and would be ignored by criminals anyway. It is truly nothing more than a precursor to Universal Firearm Registration,” the NRA stated on its Institute for Legislative Action website, posted a few weeks before a vote on HB-1588 was to take place.

Supporters of the bill, including the Washington Sheriffs and Police Chiefs Association, pointed out that only 60 percent of all gun sales are through dealers, and private party sales are often a source of guns for felons.

The financial implications, had HB-1588 passed, are unknown because statistics on private-party gun sales are not available and many might have continued without background checks.

The bill also would have provided a funding mechanism to help pay for the extra workload on police departments, allowing them to charge up to $20 per background check.

“We are exploring all these things now. And we haven’t settled on a particular path, but we recognize that law enforcement needs to be supported,” Silk said.

Next year, the alliance will push for a similar background check law, but unlike HB-1588, it will be in the form of a voter initiative, after the alliance has collected the necessary 250,000 signatures.

“At the end of the day for us what is most important is that we are able to expand background checks on everyone who buys a gun and support our local law enforcement agencies,” Silk said.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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