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Amato: Why ‘enhanced’ background checks won’t change much at gun stores


If you put the word “enhanced” in front of a noun, it often means there will be a closer examination of said noun. But if you put “enhanced” in front of the term “background checks,” does anything actually change?

Diana Pinto of Renton’s Pinto Guns said she wonders if the background check process will change much, if at all, when I-1639 goes into full effect in June.

“My assumption is they would … not only be looking at criminal issues, but they would also be looking at mental health issues,” Pinto said.


I-1639 affects regulations around gun ownership and purchase requirements in Washington. It was approved last November with 59 percent of the vote. Since then, a handful of sheriffs across the state have said they will not enforce it. A lawsuit has been filed to overturn the initiative. And one bill has been introduced in Olympia to repeal it.

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The initiative calls for, among other things, “enhanced” background checks. Washington’s Attorney General’s website notes that the checks for pistol sales and transfers are already “enhanced,” as the customer’s information, criminal history, and mental health records are also run by local law enforcement. Under I-1639, semi-automatic assault rifle sales and transfers would now be subject to that same process.

Pinto sees a problem, however, and it’s an issue they’ve run into before — mental health information.

“My understanding is that a lot of states do not report, on a regular basis, mental health issues to the federal government,” Pinto said. “Out of 50 states, you have some that don’t report at all and some that report fairly well.”

If that mental health information isn’t logged, it doesn’t come up in a background check. Pinto used Georgia as a hypothetical example. Georgia does not consistently log mental health reports.

“If the Feds don’t have that information from Georgia, how could we [in Washington] make a positive check on a person if that information is simply not provided?” Pinto said. “We would all agree we need to keep firearms out of the hands of those people, it’s just, how do you know if that person falls into one of those categories if it’s not being passed along through the proper channels?”

Background checks

There’s another problem with getting mental health records — if a patient doesn’t waive their HIPPA rights, health records are shielded from the government. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act allows you certain rights over your personal health information, such as the right to keep health records private, including billing information, and any conversations between your doctor and nurses in regards to your treatment or care.

“Mental health and medical records are always kind of a sticky wicket with a lot of people,” Pinto said. “If people don’t want to … have some of this information provided to the federal government, then they can’t blame the government for not doing the job.”

Pinto stresses that background checks are only as good as the information provided. She points out how the shooter in the Sutherland Springs shooting obtained a firearm from a dealer after the Air Force failed to report he was dishonorably discharged, which would have barred him from buying a gun.

Pinto said no firearm dealer wants put a gun in the hands of someone who will misuse it. But when it comes to deciding who gets to buy one, NICS and local law enforcement can only work with the information they have. And if the logged information isn’t correct, or missing, a background check, enhanced or not, could potentially be useless.

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