ASOTIN — New voter-approved gun laws in Washington have triggered concerns in Asotin County about lack of manpower to perform enhanced background checks on semiautomatic firearms.

Sheriff John Hilderbrand said Initiative 1639, which went into effect July 1, will cause a large increase in work volume at his office. He’s requested a new position to help offset the crunch, but the Asotin County commissioners want more information before proceeding.

At a workshop Monday, Hilderbrand said the law mandates his office to perform background checks and gather mental health information on potential purchasers within 10 days from when a gun dealer initiates the process. If the checks are not performed, the county could be liable if the weapon winds up in the hands of someone who would’ve failed the checks and commits a crime.

“It is my desire to not have that liability laid at our feet,” Hilderbrand said in a letter to county officials. “Second is the expected and required yearly verification of those who own these weapons. ... This will be impossible for us to complete at our current staffing levels.”

The commissioners said they want to know how many semiautomatic purchases are being made in Asotin County, how long it takes to perform each check and whether the county can legally pass ordinances to extend the 10-day time limit and charge a fee for the extra work. They plan to meet with Prosecutor Ben Nichols soon for legal counsel and asked the sheriff to come back with more details.

“We understand the pickle you’re in,” Commissioner Jim Jeffords said. “We’re in a pickle, too. We need the numbers to find out how long these checks actually take. We also want to know how many guns we’re talking about. I think the purchasing frenzy was the first six months of the year in anticipation of the law going into effect.”

Enhanced background checks include searches for outstanding warrants in the Washington State Patrol electronic database and mental health checks with the Washington State Health Care Authority, such as records of individuals found “not guilty by reason of insanity,” according to the Attorney General’s website. The chief of police or sheriff must provide written notice to gun dealers on whether the purchaser is eligible to possess a semiautomatic assault rifle and whether the application to purchase is approved.

“I have checked with other sheriffs around the state who have expressed this is going to cause a large increase in work volume for the clerical staff,” Hilderbrand said. “One sheriff predicts it will increase his workload from 100 to 150 percent. This sheriff has already asked for and received additional staffing to assist in this workload.”

The commissioners said the county can’t afford to add positions without funding, but they will explore options with the sheriff, such as charging an additional fee for background checks.

Asotin County officials said they are still trying to sort out all of the implications and potential costs of I-1639. The controversial law is being challenged in court and some sheriffs across the state have said they won’t enforce it.

Commissioner Brian Shinn said it is poorly written and a knee-jerk political statement, but that doesn’t mean the initiative can be ignored.

“I think when voters pass a law, we ought to enforce it,” Shinn said.

The new law is affecting gun dealers, as well as law enforcement, officials said. Before delivering a semiautomatic assault rifle to a purchaser, a dealer must be provided proof that the purchaser has completed a recognized firearm safety training program within the past five years. In addition, the age limit to buy this type of firearm went up to 21 on Jan. 1.

Prior to the new law, anyone 18 or older could buy a semiautomatic weapon without an enhanced background check or proof of firearm safety training.

“I see what people wanted — to stop gun violence,” Hilderbrand said. “But it’s not a gun issue. It’s a mental health issue.”

Sandaine may be contacted at kerris@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2264. Follow her on Twitter @newsfromkerri.

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