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Marylanders flock to buy guns at rate of 1,000 a day

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Marylanders have been rushing to buy guns at a rate of 1,000 a day over the past two weeks, hastening the pace of an unprecedented surge in gun sales.

More than 102,000 gun purchase applications have been submitted so far this year — twice the number for all of 2011, state police said Monday.

"It's like Prohibition," said Rick Kain, a gun owner from Howard County. "People want to get their guns before the law takes effect."

Maryland's tough new gun control law takes effect next week, banning the sale of assault-style rifles and requiring fingerprints and a license to buy a handgun. This month, a swarm of requests hit the Maryland State Police background check system at a pace roughly seven times that during the same time last year.

State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, has bought two more handguns this year — one with an extended magazine. She said she understands why her constituents are making a last-minute rush to avoid complying with the law's new requirements.

"It's going to make it so much more difficult for law-abiding citizens to get firearms without jumping through a million hoops," Jacobs said. "Everyone's trying to get their guns."

Among the crowd is Daniel Brantley, a child care provider from Aberdeen. He said he and his wife have bought six guns in the past month and a half, including a "family of Glocks," an AR-15 and accessories.

"Everything that's been banned, we've been buying," said Brantley, who attended a rally Monday in Annapolis to protest the new law. "Now the window of opportunity is closing."

The spike in sales — and resulting backlog of background checks — has put guns at least temporarily into the hands of people whose criminal records barred them from owning firearms and has complicated efforts to implement the new law.

Demand for guns overwhelmed the state's background check system months ago, leading half of the state's 314 dealers to release weapons to buyers without waiting for them to be checked out. Under state law, gun dealers must wait only seven days to release a firearm, but background checks have taken two months or more. All told, dealers have released 45 guns to 40 people prohibited from having them. State police said they have recovered them all.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Martin O'Malley pledged all the resources necessary to help plow through that backlog of background checks before the new law takes effect Oct. 1. But the onslaught of purchase applications has virtually wiped out the progress made by an all-hands-on-deck effort launched earlier this month.

When the state deployed a team of data entry workers and reassigned law enforcement officers to help with investigations, the backlog of background checks stood at 38,000. Now it is at 49,745 applications, according to Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley.

Shipley said the goal remains to clear the backlog by next week, but it "admittedly has become even more challenging."

Unless the backlog is cleared, buyers who pick up handguns after Sept. 30 will have to get a license — a process that takes a month and requires a $50 fee and turning in fingerprints to law enforcement.

While the new law bans the sale of 45 different types of assault weapons, it allows dealers to sell their existing inventory of assault-style rifles after Sept. 30 so long as there is a valid order placed before then.

"It's a mad rush," said Pasadena Pawn and Gun store owner Frank Loane Sr. "People are nervous they're not going to be able to get something."

At Loane's store in Pasadena, he has sold out of the AR-15 — the nation's most popular assault-style rifle, and the same type of gun used in the December mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that prompted a call for tougher gun laws in Maryland.

Loane said he's also sold about 250 pistols within the past few weeks.

Meanwhile, a senior O'Malley aide said the administration plans to continue redeploying state resources to work on the backlog until it is resolved.

A top union official for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police complained Monday that reassigning 15 of the authority's officers to do background checks has diminished the force's ability to safeguard such places as BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and the port of Baltimore.

"It starts to become a safety factor," said Shane Schapiro, the union's president. He said officers are overworked and unable to take time off. "Officers were told that they could be there up to a year doing all this gun paperwork that the state police is so behind on."

Maryland State Police consult 16 databases to complete a gun background check, a standard tougher than federal law. While Maryland prohibits people without a collector's license from purchasing more than one gun per month, there is not a prohibition on applying to buy more than that, said Shipley, the state police spokesman.

About 420,500 people own regulated firearms in Maryland, according to the state's last count in March, Shipley said.

John "Travis" Kijowski of Hagerstown picked up two additional handguns since state lawmakers started discussing tougher gun laws earlier this year. He said he finds it unfair to give police his fingerprints when gun ownership is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and he's never done anything to suggest he's an irresponsible gun owner.

"If people were asked to give fingerprints to vote, imagine the outrage," Kijowski said. "We're not a bunch of nuts. We're regular people — people who just want to be left alone."

Advocates of the new law — which also aims to keep guns away from people deemed dangerously mentally ill — dismissed the hustle to buy guns.

Vincent DeMarco, president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, said the licensing provision is designed to deter so-called straw purchasers from buying a gun on behalf of someone who isn't allowed to own it. Other states with such laws, such as New Jersey, have lower rates of gun deaths.

"October 1 is almost here, and Maryland will be a much safer place," DeMarco said. "The guns that are a problem are the ones that they buy for criminals. All we can do as a society is to enact the most effective tools to prevent gun violence, and that's what we've done."

Baltimore Sun reporters Kevin Rector and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

ecox@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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