'He Tried to Buy a Gun.' Words Domestic Violence Survivors Never Want To Hear

Dec 8, 2016

Typically a survivor of domestic violence would never know if their abuser tried to buy a gun and was denied after a background check. But now a state lawmaker and a domestic violence survivor want to change that.

In 1997, Paula -- we’ve agreed to just use her first name -- asked the court to protect her from a former longtime boyfriend. She said in a court filing that he had beaten her and her son and threatened to kill her and himself. She said he was “extremely scary."

Even though Paula left that relationship nearly 20 years ago and has a permanent protection order against him, she says “you’re always looking over your shoulder.”

Paula said it was like a “punch to the stomach” when we told her that records show her ex-boyfriend tried to buy a gun in March of 2015. That purchase was blocked after he failed a background check because of the protection order against him.

“It just puts me on a heightened like level red alert,” Paula said.

‘I don’t even get a courtesy call'

Paula’s ex-boyfriend is one of hundreds of people who tried to buy a gun in Pierce County, Washington last year but were blocked. That’s according to records obtained by KING 5.

FBI records show that background checks prevent around 4,000 firearms purchases each year in Washington state. Of those, more than half of the would-be buyers are felons or fugitives from justice. About 10 percent have been convicted of domestic violence or are the subject of a protection order.

It’s a state and federal crime to lie and try to buy a gun, but our investigation has found in Washington police rarely if ever go after failed buyers. Paula said at the least there there should be a system in place to alert someone like her when the person they have a protection order against tries to buy a gun.

“Victims like me who have tried so hard to make my life safe, my children’s life safe and I don’t even get a courtesy call saying ‘hey Mr. so-and-so has attempted to buy a firearm and we needed to let you know,’” she said.

New steps in the legislature

One person who agrees that needs to change is Democratic state Rep. Drew Hansen.

“This is no longer just ‘my abuser is out walking around,’” he said. “It’s ‘my abuser has taken active steps to make him or herself more dangerous, probably to me.’”

There’s already an alert system in place in Washington for protection order petitioners. That system lets them know when the protective order has been served and when it’s about to expire. Hansen plans to introduce legislation in January that would allow survivors to also be notified if the person they’re protected from tries to buy a gun.

“Maybe I just want to know so I take a different route to work than usual,” Hansen said. “Maybe I stay at my family member’s house for a week. Maybe I purchase my own firearm and take some self-defense training.”

Hansen also wants frontline police officers to get an alert if they stop a car and the driver just tried and failed to buy a gun. And he wants local police agencies to report to the state the number of failed local background checks and information on any follow up arrests and prosecutions.

Changes to the background check processs?

Hansen said he’s been in touch with King County Sheriff John Urquhart who recently told KING 5 he doesn’t have the resources to go after failed gun buyers.

“What police officer that’s now doing a job do I bring in to handle those cases?” Urquhart said. “Homicide detective? No. Patrol officer? No. Me? No.”

In Washington, local police agencies conduct the background checks for pistol purchases. Urquhart would like to see the Washington State Patrol take over that job -- similar to how it works in Oregon. That’s something Hansen said he’s open to considering.

As for Paula, she says just a few years ago she escaped another abusive relationship. She feels like it’s important to tell her story, but was afraid to do this interview.

“Because I can guarantee I will go to my grave fearing both of them,” she said.

These days she said she does carry a gun to protect herself.

This story was reported in collaboration with KING 5 News