According to the report by the federal agency's inspector general released last month, 761 firearms were not properly accounted for out of more than 900 guns the state issued to 90 private citizens — more than 10 per volunteer. In one case, according to the audit, a volunteer admitted to lending one of the firearms to an acquaintance, who allowed a minor to use it "for personal purposes."
The natural resources department denies most of the conclusions about firearms in the audit, and the state agency contends that more than half of the firearms are actually nonworking replicas used only for teaching.
In an interview, department Secretary John R. Griffin vigorously disputed the audit's findings. He vehemently denied the assertion that the handling of firearms created a safety risk, calling that an "editorial comment" and a "gratuitous, misplaced" expression of personal opinion by the auditors.
But in previous written responses to the draft audit, state officials raised no objections to key points and promised to make changes to address auditors' concerns.
The state's hunter education program enlists volunteer instructors and aims to reduce hunting accidents and violations, promote safety and continue the hunting tradition. Courses include instruction in shooting, firearms and ammunition, and marksmanship.
According to the federal audit, the state Natural Resources Police had no record of where the firearms were kept. Auditors said they were told most of the firearms were kept in the volunteers' homes or at gun clubs.
In addition, the audit concluded that the firearms "were not clearly and consistently marked as state property" and that the police equipment coordinator had not issued identification numbers for the instructional firearms "in years."
Auditors said the police had never conducted an inventory of the firearms. Instead, they relied on the volunteers themselves to tell them when guns were damaged or missing. In some cases, the report said, the department could not provide evidence that it conducted background checks on the volunteers.
Because the state "lost physical and administrative control" of the guns, the report said, the $95,289 in federal Fish & Wildlife Service funds spent on firearms could be considered an improper diversion from their intended use — a finding that could potentially translate into a deduction from future federal payments for department programs.
Griffin acknowledged that his department failed to respond to concerns about public safety and other critical issues in its written response to the audit, blaming poor staff work that he vowed would not be repeated.
"We didn't do the job we should have done in terms of responding to these comments," he said. "We did not connect our verbal response to the auditor with the (written) response all in one document when we responded officially."
Griffin also acknowledged that a volunteer loaned a firearm for personal purposes, but he said it was an isolated incident.
"The instructor was promptly dealt with," Griffin said. "He is no longer an instructor because he violated a very important policy."
Nevertheless, a document prepared as the Natural Resources Police response to the draft audit lists the prohibition of personal use of firearms as something done in response to the auditors' concerns. Griffin said that was poorly written and that personal use of the firearms had always been prohibited.
Col. George Johnson, chief of the police force, said the police department objected to the audit in a meeting with top Department of Natural Resources officials.
Like Griffin, Johnson maintained that the police knew where all the firearms were and who had them at all times. He also said background checks were conducted on all volunteers in the program annually.
But Johnson's assertions didn't find their way into the written response, and Johnson said he had no role in preparing it. "It's pretty obvious I'm in disagreement with it," he said.
A spokesman for the inspector general's office at the Department of the Interior said that under federal procedure, objections to an audit's findings must be done in writing and be delivered on time.
Thus, even though the state agency now contends that more than half the firearms it lent out were actually nonworking replicas of guns, that position is not reflected in the audit report because the official departmental response to the draft audit doesn't make that point.
The second, supplemental response from the Natural Resources Police does make that assertion, but the inspector general's office said it did not receive the document and it was not reflected in the final report.
Griffin and Johnson asserted that the state has had an effective inventory control system for the firearms all along, even though they acknowledged the firearms weren't recorded in the state's official system for tracking capital equipment.
"We're not threatening public safety. We have a very good inventory system," Griffin said.
However, the auditors also found that the Department of Natural Resources did not conduct an annual inventory of so-called sensitive items, including firearms, in either the 2010 or 2011 budget years, as required by the state Department of General Services.
"The department has increased the risk that equipment purchased with federal funds or license revenues could be lost, misplaced or used for other unauthorized purposes," the auditors said.
Mark Hoffman, director of finance and administrative services at the natural resources department, acknowledged that is true. "We are out of sync on our inventory process," he said, blaming a staff reshuffle due to a lost job position.
But Johnson said the police kept their own inventory outside the formal sensitive items count — a rebuttal that was not given to auditors in writing. The chief said the police are working to integrate its system with the legally prescribed process for sensitive items.
Butch Janeczek, senior firearms instructor with the Baltimore County Game and Fish Protective Association, said his impression is that the state keeps careful track of the guns. He said he recently became the custodian of 11 state-issued firearms — six operational and five nonfunctional — that are kept in a safe at the club.
"I've had them less than six months, and I've already been inventoried twice," he said. For the inventory, he said, a state official has visited his site and done a physical inspection, Janeczek said.
While many of the facts surrounding the program remain in dispute, one thing is clear: The department did not show auditors sufficient documentary evidence — either in the original audit or its response to the draft — to persuade them that the program is being run effectively and without diverting federal funds.
Nevertheless, Griffin said, he stands by the hunter education program's results and its handling of firearms.
"We have never in the history of this program had one stolen or used in a criminal activity," he said.