Court decision weakened law meant to keep guns from criminals

The Maryland law that requires a background check when someone wants to sell or give a gun to another person was written to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals.

But a Maryland Court of Appeals decision more than a decade ago that loosened the definition of a gun transfer has significantly weakened that law, researchers at Johns Hopkins say, and made it easier for so-called straw purchases to occur.


Since the appeals court decision in 2006, state prosecutions of background check violations have declined nearly 50 percent, the researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Bloomberg School of Public Health found.

The 2006 case involved Todd Lin Chow, a District of Columbia police officer who lent a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun to a friend. Police had confiscated the friend's guns after he was found with a Glock pistol without a permit.


Chow was convicted of illegally transferring a gun. The verdict was overturned on appeal.

The Court of Appeals ruled that lending a gun does not amount to a transfer of a weapon, and is not covered by the law that requires background checks and waiting periods. State prosecutors who want to prove a transfer have to show that a gun was given permanently, not lent temporarily.

“It makes it easier for the bad guys and criminals to get around the background check laws that we have,” said Cassandra Crifasi, the study’s lead researcher.

The Hopkins gun center produced the study in conjunction with the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis. The researchers looked at cases from 1996 to 2014.

Crifasi and the other researchers now are looking into whether prosecutors have pursued fewer cases since the ruling.

Jen Pauliukonis, president of the Baltimore-based Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, said law enforcement has had to focus more on legal gun possession rather than transfers.

“We are seeing more and more illegal guns on our streets,” Pauliukonis said. “Real dangerous people are getting access to firearms.”

Legislation pending in the General Assembly would define a loan of a gun as a transfer. The legislation is sponsored by Sen. William C. Ferguson IV, a Baltimore Democrat, and Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat. The members of the Hopkins team are hopeful about the bill’s chances.


Federal law prohibits straw purchases, but prosecution by federal officials is rare, the Hopkins researchers said.