About 30 percent of protective orders issued by Maryland judges are not entered into a statewide computer database used to prevent people accused of domestic abuse from buying handguns, a sampling by federal prosecutors has found.
The omissions could indicate a failure of what is meant to be an extensive system designed to protect victims of violence from angry spouses or loved ones.
Problems were discovered by Lynne A. Battaglia, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, whose office studied a sampling of protective orders issued by judges in each of the state's jurisdictions from April through July.
"It was mainly an issue of staffing shortages," she said, adding that she has met with Maryland Sheriff's Association officials and urged them to seek more funding.
Mistakes came to light in September, when the Howard County Sheriff's Department admitted it had neglected to record a restraining order obtained by Lisa Fields Spicknall against her husband, Richard Spicknall, in December.
Had the order been entered, Richard Spicknall would not have been able to buy a 9 mm handgun at a College Park pawnshop on Aug. 25. Police have charged him with using the gun in the fatal shootings of his 2-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter.
One Maryland State Police audit concluded that local jurisdictions made data entry mistakes in 86 percent of the cases, though officials called most of them minor.
"We have seen the tragedy that can happen when the system is not air-tight," Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said during a news conference Oct. 1. But state officials have not been able to describe the extent of the problem.
One set of numbers, first reported yesterday by the Washington Post, show that Maryland judges issued 8,276 protective orders from July 1998 through June this year, but only 3,053 to 4,292 had been recorded -- leaving thousands able to buy guns despite a court-ordered prohibition.
But state officials cautioned yesterday that those numbers do not accurately reflect the problem because they represent those in the system on a single day and might miss orders that expire after three or six months and had been legitimately deleted.