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A gun lock on a pistol at the Meriden Police Department, June 21, 2019. (Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP)

A surge in demand for firearms during the coronavirus pandemic means Colorado’s background check process currently takes at least 500 times longer than normal – and it’s not slowing down any time soon. 

In an effort to speed the process back up, the Polis administration is asking state lawmakers to approve $1.3 million in emergency spending to hire more staff as soon as October.

The request, announced this week, wouldn’t draw from taxes. Rather, the money would come out of the fees collected when a potential gun buyer requests a background check. The legislature initiated background check fees through legislation passed in March 2013; currently one background check costs $10.50, though the cost has fluctuated between $6 and $15.

Modeling included in the request from Gov. Jared Polis’ budget office shows that from May to July, CBI was consistently and significantly understaffed to handle the volume of background check requests coming in. 

For the week starting on March 10, right as the coronavirus pandemic started to hit the state, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation received 14,604 background check requests, twice as many as in the same period in 2019, when there were 7,257 requests. Potential gun owners are required to undergo a background check for every transaction.

The trend continued in the following months, with both April and June registering a more than 70% increase in requests compared with the year before, at 49,676 and 45,457 respectively. 

But the waiting time has increased exponentially in comparison. The rush has translated to an average wait of about 38 hours since the pandemic began. At its peak in April, the average background check took 56 hours to process, more than 650 times the average of 5 minutes in April 2019. In August, the most recent CBI data available, one background check request took an average of 26 hour, compared to a six-minute average in 2019.

The governor’s budget office estimates it needs the equivalent of 20 full-time workers for the rest of the fiscal year to handle the backlog and increased demand. CBI spokeswoman Susan Medina said that staffing estimate takes into account both the sustained growth in background check requests as well as the beginning of what would normally be the busiest time of the year, as hunting season and the holidays are fast approaching. 

“Colorado has not seen any decreases in the requests for background checks for firearms transfers since March as compared to stats from 2019,” Medina said. “In fact, the numbers continue to climb.”

State law requires background check requests to be processed within three days, after which point the potential buyer is allowed to take possession of the gun even if the check hasn’t been completed. If someone fails a background check but already took the gun home, the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency becomes responsible for recalling the gun.

CBI is aiming for a 7-minute turnaround time, according to the funding request. The CBI background check system takes a bit longer than the FBI’s system, Medina said, since it scours more databases for a more comprehensive result.

George Horne, owner of The Gun Room in Lakewood, said that at the peak of his shop’s rush, it took five days for a background check request to come back whether accepted or denied. Horne said he opted not to let a customer leave with a gun after the three-day mark, though he knew other shop owners who did. 

“It doesn’t impact business, but it inconveniences the customer because they have to leave, and if they don’t live close by, they have to come back when they’re approved,” Horne said.

The legislature’s Joint Budget Committee will meet Sept. 18 to review the supplemental budget request and four others. Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Democrat from Pueblo and the committee chairwoman, noted that even though this request is not taxpayer dollars, it’s still necessary for the panel to double-check their purpose before the administration gets the green light.

“We want to continuously make sure that cash funds are being spent the way they’re intended, and this is the check and balance for that,” Esgar said.

Should the request be approved, CBI will start hiring as early as October.

Lucy Haggard was a TRENDS Reporting Fellow from August 2020 to May 2021 with The Colorado Sun. Email: Twitter: @lucy_haggard