When Scott Schulte stopped at Pasadena Pawn and Gun last week to pick up his fifth firearm of the year, the Maryland State Police still hadn't finished his background check. The store let him take the pistol anyway.
"I figure I can use my discretion," owner Frank Loane Sr. told Schulte. "I know you."
An unprecedented surge of applications to purchase guns has overwhelmed Maryland's system for checking out the buyers. Dealers are required to wait seven days before releasing a firearm — which in the past has been enough time for the state police to complete the background check.
Lately, though, it's taken two months or more. Citing state law, some dealers have stopped waiting.
"There's a big frenzy out there," said Fred W.J. Kirchner, vice president of the Maryland Association of Firearms Retailers and owner of Fred's Firearm Service in Chestertown.
"I've got a stack of papers here I'm waiting to hear from the state police on, but I've already transferred the firearms. There's nothing they can do about that," said Kirchner, who like Loane said he gives guns only to people he knows have passed background checks before.
The rush to buy guns began in Maryland after the December shooting at a Connecticut elementary school sparked talk of tougher gun control laws, and it has continued at a record pace. In the first four months of this year, more applications were filed than in the entire period of 2008 to 2011. More than 57,000 applications had been received by the end of May.
The state police have asked dealers to continue to wait — the current delay is 10 weeks — as officials have tripled the staff to check applications, with troopers working 21 hours a day, seven days a week. At any given time, 17 to 29 troopers are consulting the required 16 databases to see if an applicant should be denied.
"We're doing all we can to address the backlog," Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said. "We've just never seen anything like this in the history of our responsibility for licensing firearms. The numbers are just staggering."
Last week, the backlog stood at 26,547 as troopers worked on applications filed in March.
National studies suggest the trend is driven not by first-time gun buyers but by gun owners like Schulte adding to their collections. While gun sales have been on the rise over the past few decades, the proportion of households with guns has been on the decline, said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
Data collected annually by the General Social Survey, which is affiliated with the University of Chicago, found that gun ownership nationwide has declined from nearly half of all households in 1973 to about a third in 2012. The result, researchers said, is a concentration of gun ownership.
Schulte, a 50-year-old land surveyor from Pasadena, said he primarily owned hunting rifles before the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Since Maryland legislators began debating — and ultimately passed — a ban on the sale of assault-style weapons, limits on magazines and other gun control rules, he's bought three pistols and two assault-style rifles. The new law will take effect Oct. 1.
"If someone tells me I can't have it, that's the first reason I want to have it," Schulte said.
Dealers, meanwhile, have been storing guns they have sold but are fearful to release. At Pasadena Pawn and Gun, Loane increased his insurance premiums to cover the 75 assault rifles and roughly 150 other guns he has sold but has yet to deliver to customers.
"You've got a lot of [angry] customers," said Carl Roy, president of Maryland Small Arms Range Inc. in Prince George's County. "The law says the gun should be released in seven days. You're now waiting 60, 70 days? And you don't have a criminal history, but you have to wait because the Maryland State Police can't get their act together? Wouldn't you be mad, too?"
Roy said most dealers have chosen to wait, partly in fear of retaliation because the state police oversee Maryland gun dealers.
"They can come in and do inspections and make you pull out every gun you have all day long," Roy said. "That's the problem that dealers are facing: Do I release the gun because the law says I can, or do I wait for the Maryland State Police?"
A trio of gun groups filed a lawsuit last month in Baltimore County Circuit Court, asking a judge to intervene — either by demanding the state police complete background checks within seven days or by having the agency issue a statement making clear there will be no civil or criminal liability for gun dealers who do not wait for the background checks to be completed.
While dealers are not required to wait more than seven days, current law also says they can later be held responsible if they sell a gun to someone they know or should have known was disqualified from buying one.
Attorneys for the state police declined to comment publicly on the lawsuit or what liability the dealers may face for selling guns to people before background checks are complete.
"The law states that the firearms dealer must hold that weapon for seven days," said Shipley, the state police spokesman. "After that, the law is silent."
He added, "We believe that firearms dealers share our concern for public safety. We certainly hope that firearms are not being released until those background checks come back."
If guns end up in the hands of felons or people otherwise disqualified from owning firearms, the state police have the responsibility of retrieving them, Shipley said.
Some dealers say they'd prefer to wait, but they're facing complaints from customers who say bureaucratic delays are blocking their Second Amendment rights.
"It's a violation of the rights of our customers — they're coming in and demanding," said Stephen Schneider, owner of Atlantic Guns in Silver Spring and president of the Maryland Licensed Firearm Dealers Association, which is a party to the lawsuit.
"For a lot of dealers, their backs are to the wall," Schneider said. "You have a lot of inventory that's tied up in a product that you can't deliver.
"Truthfully, we don't really want to deliver without knowing that we are transferring that firearm to someone legally allowed to own it. We don't really want to have to do that, but a lot of dealers feel that they have no choice."
The delays haven't bothered all gun buyers.
A few minutes after Schulte picked up his pistol, Mark Disque of Cape St. Claire stopped by Pasadena Pawn and Gun. He wanted to collect the .22-caliber Sig Sauer Mosquito pistol he'd picked out in March for his 14-year-old son to use for target practice at a farm owned by a family friend. It took 85 days for state police to return his paperwork, but he was glad the state police were being thorough.
"If you're legal and honest about it, you shouldn't mind having to wait," Disque said.
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