A day after being criticized on the floor of the House of Representatives, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said yesterday that she was not responsible for a decision this year that resulted in a temporary halt to background checks on some gun buyers.
Townsend, the Democratic candidate for governor, accused House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who made the remarks, of "playing politics" with the issue.
On Tuesday, Sensenbrenner asked congressional investigators to look into why the Maryland State Archives stopped cooperating with the FBI for four months this year on the background checks.
The four-month gap may have resulted in as many as 500 gun buyers not being screened, state officials said yesterday.
In his remarks, Sensenbrenner called Townsend the state's "point person for criminal justice matters" and said that she is partly responsible for the lapse.
"I expect the lieutenant governor of Maryland to fully cooperate with the General Accounting Office investigation," said Sensenbrenner, who requested a GAO audit on Tuesday.
At issue is why the state archives office refused for four months to conduct background checks for the FBI.
In a March 12 letter, the deputy state archivist told the FBI that the state agency would not cooperate until it found $45,000 to pay for the background checks. In July, the office resumed the checks after receiving a federal grant.
Sensenbrenner said the state had received $6.7 million in federal funds through the National Criminal History Improvement Program since 1995 to improve its criminal history records and enforce the Brady Act.
"Are we to believe Maryland could not find $45,000 to assist with ... checks?" Sensenbrenner said on the House floor.
A GAO spokesman said yesterday that the agency will "immediately" begin to discuss the issue with Sensenbrenner.
Townsend said she does not oversee the archives office and accused congressional Republicans of trying to help Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the GOP candidate for governor.
"I think once again they are playing politics," Townsend said. "They want to get the subject changed from what clearly people are upset about, which are Congressman Ehrlich's votes on assault weapons and Saturday night specials."
But Paul E. Schurick, an Ehrlich spokesman, said Townsend "has personally been in charge of crime control for eight years. She is responsible for these guns being sold. The archivist is not in charge of crime in Maryland."
The FBI performs background checks on people who buy hunting rifles or shotguns. The state archives helps the FBI on all checks involving criminal records before 1982. Later records are on electronic databases.
Leonard A. Sipes, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the state archives "made the wrong decision."
"Somewhere they made a unilateral decision on their own to stop performing these pre-1982 checks, which was obviously the wrong opinion," Sipes said.
The decision has become a campaign issue for Ehrlich.
In a statement yesterday, he said: "The Glendening-Townsend administration and its chief crime fighter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, have failed to meet their most basic obligation: to keep guns out of the hands of criminals."
"Well-intentioned gun laws are ineffective without well-run government," Ehrlich said.
In response, Townsend spokesman Peter Hamm noted that Ehrlich has consistently opposed new gun control laws.