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News Opinion Editorial

Maryland's gun background check backlog

When government is given a job to do in seven days and it takes 10 weeks instead, anger and frustration is likely to be heard. Such is the case with the background checks for gun purchases. The Maryland State Police has a backlog, and gun dealers and purchasers alike aren't happy about waiting 10 times longer than intended.

But let's also keep the problem in perspective. This clearly isn't an effort to deliberately inconvenience gun purchasers. State police are simply swamped with applications — the equivalent of four years of applications were received in the last four months. And it appears they've taken sensible steps to try to keep up with the backlog, including hiring more people and spending more hours each day working on them.

Government can't work miracles any more than the private sector can. When the latest iPhone, Furby or Tickle Me Elmo suddenly becomes a runaway hit, the store experiences a backlog, and customers have to wait. In that context, 10 weeks is hardly a crime.

And speaking of crime, it should be noted that the vast majority of these gun purchasers already own multiple firearms, so this isn't about endangered people looking to arm themselves. The U.S. may have experienced an uptick in gun buying since the Newtown, Conn., shooting, but gun ownership in this country continues to be in decline — from half of homes having a gun in the 1970s to about one-third today.

So what's going on here? Here's a hint. This year, Gov. Martin O'Malley and the Maryland General Assembly approved legislation placing additional restrictions on gun ownership in an effort to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously insane. One of those requirements is that people must get a license that involves having their fingerprints taken.

It's likely that a lot of gun owners are looking to avoid that fingerprint requirement or the licensing fee or other provisions of the gun law which do not go into effect until Oct. 1. Others are stocking up on assault weapons that will be banned for sale when the new law goes into effect. So the backlog may simply be the equivalent of the end-of-the-month rush at the Motor Vehicle Administration by people whose tags are about to expire — everyone knows to expect long lines on that day.

That's not the only reason to believe that the backlog may resolve itself. Next year's budget includes $4.6 million to upgrade the background check and licensing system. Those additional funds — made possible mostly by a $50 licensing fee and on top of $400,000 appropriated for the current fiscal year — become available on July 1. That should also help state police handle the load.

All of which suggests that gun dealers should think twice before releasing firearms before a background check is completed even though they may have the right to do so under current Maryland law. The liability risk is simply too great even if they know (or think they know) the purchaser and that person has passed one or more state police background checks in the past. The fact that a gun buyer has passed a background check at some point doesn't mean he or she should now and forever be allowed to purchase weapons. This is why, for instance, the state recently enacted a law allowing for the confiscation of weapons from those subject to domestic violence protective orders. Circumstances change.

Recently, some lawsuits were filed by gun groups in Baltimore County who are looking to force state police to complete background checks in seven days or to clarify that police won't seek criminal or civil sanctions against dealers who release guns before such checks are complete. While the law is silent on what should happen to a dealer who acts hastily — for instance, handing over a gun in seven days to someone who subsequently fails the background check and uses that gun in a crime — it would be reckless for any judge to impose such an order to solve a problem that is likely to resolve on its own in just a few months.

Not every inconvenience suffered by gun owners is a violation of their Second Amendment rights. (What's next? Customer service representatives weren't available on weekends to answer applicants' questions? Call the ACLU!) Waiting nine more weeks is simply not a serious enough inconvenience to throw this particular program out with the bathwater.

Let's not lose sight of the most important issue — reducing gun violence by keeping firearms out of the hands of people who should not have them. The delays are unfortunate but tolerable under the circumstances because the background checks are vital to accomplishing this end. If these delays are still a problem next year, then perhaps further measures will be required. In the meantime, gun dealers and purchasers will simply have to exercise a bit of patience.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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