Maryland gun dealers released more than two dozen firearms to people barred from owning guns because of their criminal records — a consequence of the state's inability to keep up with background checks, officials said Thursday.
The state police expect more guns to get into the wrong hands if dealers refuse to wait for what has become a nearly 100-day delay in completing the checks, which are intended to be done before individuals buy handguns and assault rifles. Under state law, dealers can release the guns after waiting seven days.
"Is this something that could continue through this backlog? Absolutely," Maryland State Police spokesman Gregory M. Shipley said Thursday.
A team of troopers working undercover has recovered all 30 of the guns, which dealers legally released after the seven-day period. More than 33,000 gun purchase applications, some filed as far back as April 14, have not been processed and the backlog swells by thousands each week.
The state police have asked gun sellers to continue to wait, and most have, carrying the costs of keeping months' worth of inventory in their stores and dealing with frustrated customers.
The unprecedented surge in gun sales followed passage this year of the sweeping gun control law proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley and approved by the Maryland General Assembly.
After the December shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, Maryland lawmakers banned the sale of assault-style weapons, further limited the size of magazines, prohibited more people from owning guns, and created a fingerprinting and licensing system for handgun purchasers. The law takes effect in October, and gun sales are expected to remain brisk until then.
A leading proponent of gun control said Thursday that dealers should be waiting as long as it takes for the background checks before releasing a gun.
"Public safety is at stake here," state Sen. Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. "It's not responsible for them to say, 'OK, they didn't get back to me in time, so here's your gun.'"
But Carl Roy, president of the Maryland Association of Firearms Retailers, said it's the state's responsibility to alleviate the backlog. He said he thinks the state is using bureaucratic delays as a way to curb the sale of firearms, knowing that most dealers will be reluctant to release a gun without a background check.
The problem, Roy said, is that some clearly haven't waited.
"The bottom line is the governor doesn't care," Roy said. "It's not that the state police don't care, it's the people who fund the state police — from the governor all the way down."
A spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said the state is hiring more people to address the backlog and is working to automate the system. O'Malley press secretary Takirra Winfield said there's little more the state can do but rely on the dealers to use good judgment. "Clearly, public safety is the governor's priority, and the dealers should keep that in mind when they choose to release guns without background checks," Winfield said.
Del. Kevin Kelly, a Western Maryland Democrat, has twice appealed to Maryland State Police Col. Marcus L. Brown to expedite the process by allowing dealers to check directly with the FBI — which keeps a national database of people barred from gun ownership under federal law — and bypass the state's more stringent check.
The FBI's service determines in minutes whether a buyer is a felon. Thirty-six states allow dealers to directly access the information.
"It would assure that every gun that was put on the street and sold would be scrutinized," Kelly said.
Brown wrote to Kelly that the idea "is not a sole solution to background investigations."
In Maryland, other factors — including multiple drunken-driving convictions, certain violent juvenile offenses and domestic-violence charges — can disqualify people from owning guns. State police consult 16 different databases to decide whether a gun purchaser should be disqualified, a process that takes roughly 15 minutes per application.
Of the more than 70,000 applications filed this year, about 500 were rejected.
The demand for guns has overwhelmed the state's background check system as far back as January.
State police have received an average of more than 2,000 applications each week this year, nearly twice last year's rate and more than three times the pace in 2010. Despite tripling the workforce and processing applications 21 hours a day, the agency keeps falling further behind.
Dealers are required to notify state police when they plan to release a weapon after the seven-day waiting period, but the state's paper-based system for gun applications makes it impossible to track how many dealers made that choice.
All 30 of the guns recovered were released to buyers whose criminal history barred them from owning them. Most were banned because of violent crimes and drug offenses; none was a convicted murderer, Shipley said.
As of Thursday, no one had been charged with illegally attempting to buy a firearm. The guns were released by multiple dealers across the state.
Del. Michael Smigiel, an Eastern Shore Republican and a leading opponent of the new gun law, said the state's failure to check out gun buyers in a timely fashion leaves government officials — not dealers — with the responsibility for any tragedy that might result.
"The blood of our children are on their hands," he said. "There's no excuse for this."