Maryland's reckless gun dealers

Here's the scary thing about the news that the Maryland State Police has found 30 cases in which gun dealers decided not to wait for the state to complete a background check and handed firearms to people whose criminal histories made them ineligible to own them: It's almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg. For the sake of public safety and any pretense they have to moral authority, gun dealers must immediately stop releasing guns before background checks are complete.

The number of applications for firearms purchases has risen to unprecedented levels since the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December and the ensuing push for tighter gun laws in Maryland and elsewhere. The state police have responded by tripling the staff who work on background checks and conducting them 21 hours a day, seven days a week. (The only reason it's not 24 hours a day is that many of the databases that are consulted as part of the checks shut down for maintenance between midnight and 3 a.m.) The police and Gov. Martin O'Malley's office are continuing to look for other ways to speed up the process. But so strong is the irrational fervor to buy guns before Maryland's new gun control laws take effect on Oct. 1 — laws that, incidentally, do not stop law-abiding adults from getting weapons for self defense, hunting and sport shooting — that the state faces a backlog of about 100 days in completing the checks.

Apparently that's not good enough for some gun dealers, who are making a fortune as a result of laws they claim to despise. State law says that if a background check is not completed in seven days, a dealer is legally authorized to release a gun to a purchaser unless the dealer knows or has reason to believe he or she is ineligible to buy one.

When they do that, they send notice to the state police. In these 30 cases, the police discovered the illegal purchases when the applications came up in the background check queue and sent undercover troopers to recover the weapons.

What's particularly frightening is that these 30 sales occurred in the first few months of the year, before the processing backlog became as bad as it is now, and before firearms dealers started agitating for some blessing from the state to release guns after seven days. In May, three gun groups filed suit in Baltimore County demanding that the agency either complete all applications within seven days or issue a statement promising that dealers would face no criminal or civil penalties if they don't wait for the checks to be completed.

In June, the National Rifle Association issued a news release declaring victory, claiming — inaccurately — that the state had agreed to a "new policy" that a firearm can be given to a purchaser after seven days. In reality, the state responded to the lawsuit by reiterating existing law. But the effect has been that Maryland gun dealers have been far more likely since then to release guns after seven days.

How many of those guns have gone to felons? We'll find out in 100 days when the state processes the applications. What's most disturbing is the possibility that people who were ineligible to buy firearms have taken advantage of the backlog to buy a gun. Firearms dealers have said that they are careful to release guns only to people they know, but the 30 cases identified by the state police prove their discretion is not infallible.

Some have suggested that the state should give gun dealers the authority to consult the FBI's database of people ineligible to buy guns under federal law. That's not a viable solution. Maryland's background checks are more stringent, for good reason; they also include people with multiple drunk driving convictions, violent juvenile offenses and domestic violence charges. The governor and state police should continue doing everything they can to reduce the backlog, but they shouldn't do it by cutting corners.

In the meantime, whatever their legal rights are, gun dealers have a moral responsibility to wait for background checks before releasing firearms to buyers. The potential consequences of doing otherwise are simply too great. Gun dealers claim to be as committed as anyone to making sure guns don't fall into the wrong hands. Now's the time for them to prove it.

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