Checking gun buyers improved, audit finds; State police completing process within 7 days required under law


Maryland State Police are doing a "dramatically" better job of completing criminal background checks of handgun purchasers, General Assembly auditors have concluded.

The legislative audit, released yesterday, was done after a breakdown earlier this year allowed dozens of felons and other unqualified buyers to purchase guns.

Conducted between June and August, the audit found that state police were performing all handgun checks within the legally mandated seven-day waiting period.

In January and February, state police were routinely failing to conclude checks within seven days and were not issuing required "hold orders" that would have prohibited merchants from completing those gun sales, the audit said.

Police fanned out across the state in early March to confiscate 54 guns that slipped into the hands of felons, psychiatric patients and other unqualified purchasers whose background checks were not completed before the weapons were sold.

One of those guns -- sold to a Baltimore woman awaiting trial on felony charges -- was used in a fatal shooting in Prince George's County.

Col. David B. Mitchell, state police superintendent, said he agreed with most of the auditors' findings, which he said were the product of major changes in the department.

"Suffice it to say there were painful lessons learned, but we learned them well," Mitchell said.

The audit found that in January, the state took an average of 32 days to perform a background check. By June, the average wait had been reduced to slightly under four days.

Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, who brought some of the problems to light, said she was pleased the checks are being done promptly, but was concerned by the auditors' conclusion that state police were not doing enough to ensure they are completed accurately.

The auditors found that a state police employee's approval of a gun purchase was not double-checked by a supervisor.

"I think it's worth spending some of the taxpayers' money to make sure the job is done right," said Kagan, a Montgomery Democrat.

Mitchell said the department has since strengthened its procedures so that a sworn officer reviews every background check. He said a supervisor also will be hired to do random testing to make sure the checks are accurate.

Meanwhile, the state police are trying to determine whether local law enforcement agencies are recording orders by judges that bar people accused of domestic violence from buying guns.

The review comes in the wake of an oversight in January by the Howard County Sheriff's Department, which neglected to enter into a computer system a restraining order against a man who later bought a gun. He has been charged with using it to kill his two children on the Eastern Shore.

"There are still people slipping through the cracks," Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said yesterday. "We have seen the tragedy that can happen when the system is not air-tight."

Police and court officials compile statistics in vastly different ways, making comparisons difficult. The number of restraining orders entered into computer systems by some local agencies appear low when compared to the number of orders issued by judges, officials said.

Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 10/02/99

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