Guns

Handguns on display (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / January 26, 2013)

More than 300 people banned from owning guns were able to buy them last year because the state police were overwhelmed with background check requests, police said Wednesday.

People with histories of mental illness or convictions for violent misdemeanors, felons and fugitives were able to obtain and keep guns for three months or longer before state police reviewed the sales, according to records released by request to The Baltimore Sun.

Maryland State Police finally cleared the backlog of background-check requests last week that began more than a year ago and once stood at more than 60,000, leading to months-long delays in investigating thousands of firearm transactions.

Police say a team of undercover troopers has recovered nearly all of the 364 firearms sold to people barred from owning them, but four guns have not been retrieved. "To us, the danger has not passed," state police spokesman Greg Shipley said.

Nine transactions have been referred to prosecutors as knowingly illegal sales, he said.

Over the course of last year, dealers released 51,812 guns before a background check was completed. They could legally do that because of a loophole that allows them to give out firearms after waiting a week, regardless of whether the check is done. Normally, the seven-day waiting period provides plenty of time for state troopers to conduct the check and notify dealers.

But a surge in gun-buying last year, sparked by the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, overwhelmed the system beginning in January 2013. A tough new gun-control law pushed by Gov. Martin O'Malley and passed by the legislature spurred gun sales leading up to Oct.1, when the law took effect.

By then, the wave of buyers, racing to get ahead of the state's new handgun licensing requirement and ban on the sale of assault weapons, had grown to a tsunami.

More gun purchase applications were received in September 2013 alone than the state often sees in a year, police said. Of the 128,640 applications received last year, 40 percent of the firearms were released before a background check was completed.

That's how one buyer who was prohibited from owning a gun for mental health reasons took home a gun from a Baltimore County dealer on Oct. 1. State police did not see and reject the buyer's application until nearly three months later, on Jan. 29, according to records released to The Sun under a Public Information Act request. That gun was recovered by Maryland State Police.

A felon in Baltimore— one who would have failed an instant federal check that can be done at the store for shotgun purchases — took home a gun on Sept. 30. State police didn't fully review the transaction until mid-February, records show. Police also recovered that firearm.

"That's one guy out of 51,000," said Del. Michael Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican and vocal defender of gun rights in the General Assembly. Smigiel criticized the state police for insisting on doing their more exhaustive, time-consuming check instead of relying on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, to screen buyers.

"The big picture point is they could do this in matter of seconds. They could easily take care of this," Smigiel said.

Police say state law requires them to perform a more extensive check that involves searching more than a dozen databases.

To date, state police are aware of only one instance in which a gun released to a prohibited buyer was used in a crime. That Prince George's County carjacking case from January is scheduled to go to trial in May.

Dealers and gun-rights advocates contend that the vast majority of guns were released to people who ultimately cleared background checks and that the state's bureaucratic delays should not infringe on Second Amendment rights to own guns.

Most of the guns went to people who did not know they were barred from owning them, Shipley said. Some were convicted in other states where their crime doesn't result in losing gun rights. Others were convicted of crimes years ago, long before state lawmakers decided those offenses deserved longer sentences that result in losing gun rights.

A key gun-control advocate bemoaned the flood of firearms purchased in the state, but emphasized that it was a temporary situation.

"It's unfortunate that there were so many guns being bought that there was an overload, but it will never happen again," said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence advocacy group that worked to pass the state's strict new gun law. Gun sales have plummeted since the law took effect.

"This problem has been solved," DeMarco said.

Although hundreds of people ended up with guns they should not have owned, the data released to The Sun does not show a pattern of specific dealers handing out firearms to people barred from buying them. Most weapons released before the checks were completed went to buyers who would have passed the state's scrutiny.

"What we think happened is people who already owned guns wanted more guns," said Shipley, the state police spokesman.

Police provided more detailed records for background checks completed from October 2013 through March. During that time, guns went to 41 felons, 10 people barred from gun ownership under federal law, and five people considered fugitives. Attorneys reviewed each of the 345 people who bought guns they were barred from owning, and recommended charges in only nine of the cases, Shipley said.

"They're just not seeing that clear intent to be fraudulent," he said.

ecox@baltsun.com

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