PULLMAN — Washington State University police have ended a decades-old service of storing guns for students, leaving student-sportsmen and others unsure of what legal storage options are left to them for firearms brought from home.
WSU Assistant Police Chief Steve Hansen said the change has less to do with new Washington laws addressing gun ownership than with changes to the legal interpretation of a police department’s responsibility when returning a firearm to its owner.
In years past, Hansen said, WSUPD was able to avoid background checks and other steps associated with a “transfer of ownership,” as the gun-storage service was considered more of a “bailment,” or a transfer solely of possession.
However, that interpretation has since changed, Hansen said. Now, each time the department returns a weapon to its owner, that transaction must be treated the same as if a licensed gun dealer were facilitating the sale of the weapon to a new owner. Hansen said this means lengthy background checks, among other steps, which can take a week or more to perform.
“We can’t really do it anymore, it’s way too cumbersome on both sides — for us and for the gun owner — for us to do this,” Hansen said. “You’ll see that none of the universities are doing them anymore.”
With firearms possession prohibited on campus, including in student housing, this leaves student hunters or target-shooters with few legal options. Hansen said he has suggested students investigate storage options at local gun clubs or through licensed firearms dealers, but pointed out these are sparse in Pullman and they would be required to perform the same background checks before giving the weapon back.
Pullman Police Cmdr. Chris Tennant said his agency doesn’t store private weapons for exactly this reason. Tennant said even in the case of domestic disturbances with weapons in the home, or a person at risk of harming themselves, the Pullman Police Department does not store guns for safekeeping.
“That’s what law enforcement should do, but giving the gun back takes a work of Congress,” Tennant said. “It’s not a quick and easy process, it takes weeks, and lots of background checks and it’s very frustrating for everybody involved.”
While Hansen said it’s possible WSU police’s gun-storage program could return if the legal opinions shift toward viewing such an arrangement as a bailment once more, the service will not be available this year.
Tennant said while he understands the decision, WSU police discontinuing their weapons storage program leaves a “big void” in the Pullman community. He said with no other options left to them, there may be students storing their personal firearms illegally in their dorms or vehicles. He said there are only a few storage alternatives left to WSU students who own weapons.
“My official suggestion is don’t bring them to Pullman,” Tennant said. “Obviously, you lived and dealt with it somewhere prior to coming to Pullman — use that resource, whether it’s a parent or a friend or something that has a secure gun safe back home.”
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