Gov. Martin O'Malley said Wednesday that the state is mustering all necessary resources to complete tens of thousands of background checks for gun buyers by Oct. 1, when Maryland's new gun control law takes effect.
The backlog of checks has put firearms in the hands of more than three dozen people barred from owning guns and complicated implementation of the state's new law.
"The state police have all the support, whatever support they need," O'Malley said, confirming he hopes to clear the backlog by the end of the month. "That's our goal."
The Baltimore Sun reported in June that the state police were months behind in completing the background checks — and that some dealers were releasing guns without waiting for results. By law, dealers must wait only seven days.
As of Wednesday, nearly half of the state's 314 gun dealers had reported releasing firearms without waiting for a background check to come back, state police said. So far, 45 guns have been sold to 41 people barred from owning them. All the weapons were ultimately recovered by an undercover team of state troopers, but law enforcement officials worry about guns getting into the wrong hands.
"It only takes one," Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said.
An unprecedented 88,800 requests to buy guns this year has swamped the system, leaving checks that are supposed to be completed within a week languishing for more than two months.
The all-hands-on-deck effort to tackle a backlog of 38,000 checks began Saturday, officials said, with as many as 40 data entry workers from five different agencies putting in overtime. The workers have been transferring encrypted information about gun buyers into the database used for background checks.
If the checks aren't done by Oct. 1, the buyers could face new restrictions before they can take their guns home. The new law requires handgun purchasers to submit fingerprints and get a $50 license. Even buyers who applied long ago will have to comply with those provisions to pick up a handgun starting next month, according to an advisory letter by the attorney general's office.
But the push has sparked privacy concerns from some state lawmakers, gun buyers and gun rights groups. This week, two state lawmakers have questioned whether it is legal for workers from outside the state police to do the data entry and whether the effort has breached privacy laws. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler is in the process of crafting a legal opinion, his spokesman said.
Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, wrote to the governor Sunday that she received "a firestorm of emails from very upset citizens of this state. ... This eleventh hour 'Hail Mary' attempt over the weekend to finally address the backlog of close to 40,000 applications is insulting to these applicants and to me." The backlog should have been addressed months ago, Jacobs wrote.
Meanwhile, the issue has become part of the campaign for governor. Harford County Executive David Craig, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, has demanded that the state's top Democrats explain how the extra workforce is legal.
Officials said workers whose jobs call for handling sensitive information at other state agencies were given the same login and password to enter information that included Social Security numbers and home addresses of gun buyers.
"There's no way the state can say who looked at what information when," said Patrick Shomo, president of the gun rights group Maryland Shall Issue and a computer programmer. "In some ways, we appreciate the fact that belatedly they're trying to work on this stuff, but compromising ... people's confidential information is not the way to do it."
Across the country, gun dealers saw a spike in gun purchases after the December shooting at a Newtown, Conn. elementary school that killed 26 people. Shipley said the state police several months ago reassigned 21 troopers from patrols to work on background checks, and another 17 civilians were assigned to help.
"We are doing all we can within the appropriate safeguards and structures to address the backlog, which thousands of people had been petitioning us to do for many months," Shipley said.
Maryland Shall Issue, the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore and private citizens have complained that unless the backlog is cleared before Oct. 1, gun buyers will be forced to pay a $50 fee, pay for fingerprinting and get a license they weren't required to have when they first tried to buy the gun.
Vincent DeMarco, president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, said the greater concern for the public is that the checks get done before dealers release firearms. "We are very pleased that the administration is doing everything they can do deputize people to get through the backlog," he said. "The brouhaha about it is a tempest in a teapot."
Maryland Shall Issue has asked for the state to pay for credit monitoring for gun buyers until the state can prove there has not been a data breach.