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News Opinion Editorial

Badly targeted gun gripes

Gun advocates have been crying for close to two years about how long it takes the Maryland State Police to conduct background checks for prospective gun buyers. The delays have lengthened with the passage earlier this year of Gov. Martin O'Malley's gun control law that will impose a fingerprint and handgun qualification license requirement beginning Oct. 1.

So naturally one would think that anything the MSP could do to reduce that waiting period — which is now in the neighborhood of four months — would be welcomed by gun owners and those who advocate for them.

And, of course, you would be wrong.

Pro-gun advocates are complaining that state police have enlisted the help of several dozen state employees from other agencies to speed the process. Specifically, the police have transferred applications to encrypted disks and shipped them to state agencies where data entry clerks can enter names, addresses, dates of birth and Social Security numbers of applicants into the state police database.

Del. Kevin Kelly of Allegany County and others have cried foul. They say that non-police personnel can't be trusted with "extremely personal" data. And Delegate Kelly has even gone so far as to call into question the legality of the policy and has stated his objections in a recent letter to Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.

To which one can only reply, really? As police have pointed out, these clerks routinely enter the exact same information for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the Department of Transportation and others. Indeed, they probably see a lot more sensitive information, including mental health records, criminal records, driver's license and registration data on a routine basis, and nobody says, boo.

The data is entered, the disks destroyed, and then the people back in the MSP licensing division who actually have the sensitive part — investigating the applicant's background — do their thing. It's just one of the ways that the state police have tried to cut down on the backlog. They've also transferred 21 troopers and 17 civilian employees into the licensing office, and they've collectively put in 24,200 hours of overtime during the past year.

The real problem is that gun purchases have soared, particularly since the Newtown massacre in 2012, as people fear a government crackdown on gun ownership. Maryland has seen an increase from 744 applications a week several years ago to 2,400 a week today. It's driven in large part by the kind of paranoia that the National Rifle Association trades in — the ever-present fear that government will take away Americans' right to own a firearm. (Which is, incidentally, great for the business of gun manufacturers and dealers.)

One suspects that the real agenda here is to convince Gov. Martin O'Malley to loosen the rules. Gun dealers would love to see Maryland reduce its background check requirement to the more modest federal standards. That would not only reduce the backlog but make it far more likely that criminals and others who should be refused would slip through the cracks.

What makes this particularly appalling is that what the state police are doing — addressing a problem with a creative solution rather than blindly spending money to increase the bureaucracy — is exactly what conservatives usually want government to do. It's an attempt to be efficient and effective, and that really seems to tick the opponents off.

We applaud the state police for making such an effort — and gun buyers ought to be cheering them on as well. It was just weeks ago that gun advocates were suggesting that state police actually preferred to have a backlog in place in order to curb the sale of firearms. So much for that conspiracy theory of the moment. In reality, police want to get those background checks done as quickly as possible before dealers release firearms to their customers.

Average gun owners probably aren't all that worked up by the backlog or by whether the state police employ data entry clerks from the health department. The vast majority aren't much affected by the requirement and didn't rush out to bolster their inventory after the massacre of innocent children and school teachers in Connecticut.

Too bad their interests are so badly misrepresented by NRA-sponsored groups and politicians who seem to believe that gun owners are witless stooges. Polls have shown gun owners, like most Americans, overwhelmingly favor background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally ill.

The state police should keep private information private — just as every state agency should. But they appear to have taken the proper precautions in this instance, and their critics ought to be just as cautious rather than play fast and loose with the facts.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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