Boulder County Sheriff urges gun sellers to wait for background check approval, despite wait time spike during coronavirus pandemic

L Sara Brandenburg, of Grandpa’s Pawn and Gun in Longmont, sells a gun to Jordan Brodacz on March 25, 2020.
(Cliff Grassmick/ Staff Photographer)
L Sara Brandenburg, of Grandpa’s Pawn and Gun in Longmont, sells a gun to Jordan Brodacz on March 25, 2020. (Cliff Grassmick/ Staff Photographer)

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation is reporting a historic swell in background checks for gun purchases. With the average turnaround for the process taking six days, the CBI said gun sellers have the discretion to release the firearm before clearing the background check if it takes longer than the window of three business days outlined by federal law.

Following a surge in state and national gun sales seen during the new coronavirus pandemic, Susan Medina, a spokesperson for the CBI, described the strain on the CBI’s InstaCheck Unit, which processes background checks. In Colorado, a background check is required to legally purchase a gun. The CBI is authorized to impose a $10.50 fee for the background check and a licensed dealer may also implement a $10 statutory fee, according to CBI

“We’ve had situations where we have had dramatic numbers, but not like this,” Medina said.

On March 23, the CBI reported receiving 25,468 background checks the week before. In the next seven days that number went down, but remained staggering, at 12,266 background checks. During the same time frame last year, there were 6,499 background checks filed. The CBI’s InstaCheck Unit had 9,257 background checks waiting in its queue as a result of the swell, according to a March 31 CBI news release.

While firearms sellers can complete a sale by default, if the background check exceeds the federal law’s window of three business days, Medina said the CBI is “strongly encouraging federal firearms licensees, if they have a check outside of the window, to hold the firearm.”

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle echoed this.

“There’s no way (without a background check) for a gun retailer to know if they’re selling a firearm to someone with a felony record, restraining order or domestic violence situation, extreme-risk protection order — all the things that could be critically dangerous,” Pelle said.

As of Wednesday, Pelle said the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office had not received any reports from the CBI to retrieve guns from anyone who may have circumvented the background check, due to the backlog situation.

According to Medina, earlier this week a firearm was sold in Colorado to a person whose background check indicated that they are prohibited from possessing a firearm. The CBI is now working to retrieve that weapon, Medina said. As of Wednesday, this was the only incident in which a person who should not have a weapon got one, she said. Medina said she could not say what county this occurred in.

Before the pandemic, a CBI background check averaged eight minutes, Medina said. With the increased demand, Medina said it takes roughly six days to complete.

At Grandpa’s Pawn & Gun Shop in Longmont, business owner Rod Brandenburg said he started to see a surge in firearm sales around March 11. Brandenburg said a number of those buyers told him this was their first gun purchase.

Brandenburg has warned customers about the longer length on background checks. Despite having the option, Brandenburg said he will not permit a gun sale, unless the customer has cleared a background check.

“I sleep better at night when people know they have to go through the background check,” Brandenburg said. “A criminal could come in now knowing it will take more than three days and buy a gun, and then that would be on my conscience. Here, we are going to have them go through a background check. It’s safer that way. It protects me, when the government, state and federal entities are approving someone, and it’s not just my decision.”

This isn’t the first time Brandenburg’s seen a surge in sales, but he said even the spike he saw during Y2K and following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 “paled in comparison.”

As to why he thinks so many people are buying guns in the wake of the new coronavirus pandemic, Brandenburg said he believes that the “media” has stoked peoples’ fears and he believes buyers are reacting to their safety feeling threatened .

When members of the Boulder Facebook group were asked why they would want to purchase a gun at this time, several said they wanted to feel a sense of security.

“Better to have one and not need it, than “]to need one and not have it,” wrote Lucas Little.

But having a gun doesn’t automatically protect a person, especially if they don’t know how to use it safely, Deborah Brown added.

“It’s so important to practice and be familiar (with) your gun and proper safety if you own one,” Brown wrote.

Kit Claus said it was an “uncertainty of the future,” in wake of the pandemic that encouraged her to buy her first gun. She wrote that she bought it “mainly to protect myself and my house if things were to get really bad.”

Joshua Westerman expressed concerns about backlash from gun sale surges and potentially seeing more accidental shootings or suicides in the near future.

The demand for firearms and background check backlogs are being seen across the nation, based on FBI reports, the CBI news release said.

Medina emphasized that the CBI has been taking new approaches to try to keep up with the demand, including increasing internal hours and cross-training CBI staff to help with the process. However, she said, the CBI still has to make efforts to follow social distancing boundaries to keep staff and the surrounding community safe.

“I think the CBI InstaCheck team is one of the most dedicated and committed work bodies,” Medina said. “They are passionate about the public safety checks they provide and they’re doing everything they can to think outside of the box.”