Panicking over Md.'s gun law [Editorial]

It's unfortunate that hundreds of guns purchased in the weeks before Maryland's stricter firearms regulations went into effect last year ended up in the hands of people who should never have been allowed to own them. Most of the weapons have since been recovered, but one was sold to a man later accused of using it in a carjacking in Prince George's County, and others were purchased by people with criminal records, a history of mental illness or other disqualifying factors.

Yet the fault for those failures doesn't lie with the law or with state police efforts to complete thousands of background checks on gun license applicants in a timely fashion. Rather, the real culprit was the hysteria deliberately whipped up by the gun lobby to convince people that their Second Amendment rights were at risk. Despite the fact that no such threat existed, misplaced concern over the law's effect snowballed into an unprecedented surge of panic buying that overwhelmed the system and, not incidentally, helped gun dealers profit from a torrent of sales.

A Sun investigative report Sunday by Timothy B. Wheeler and Erin Cox highlighted the consumer fears that spurred record firearms sales last year and the flood of background check requests that created a huge bottleneck in the processing of permit applications. The backlog of cases peaked at 60,000 in October, which would have required some buyers to wait months for their checks to be completed. With police stymied by the sheer volume of applications, some dealers began distributing firearms to customers after waiting only seven days, the minimum required under state law. Eventually, more than 50,000 guns were released to customers before background checks on them were completed, including to some people who were legally barred from owning them.

It's important to emphasize that this result was entirely avoidable because the hysteria driving the rush to buy weapons was a manufactured crisis. The vast majority of gun buyers could just as easily have waited until after Maryland's post-Newtown gun laws went into effect and bought exactly the same weapon with little or no delay at all. The proof of that is that gun sales this year have dropped back to normal levels, and 94 percent those processed under the new law have been completed within the 30-day window that is now required. The only people who benefited from the frenzy were people who otherwise would have been ineligible to own guns and the dealers who made money on such transactions.

Now the gun lobby wants to blame state officials for the mess its dire predictions of curtailed Second Amendment rights created — and to use it as an excuse to further water down Maryland's gun laws. But the state acted responsibly in this case. During the worst of the run on gun shops, the state police department moved quickly, assigning extra officers to whittle down the backlog of background checks and even enlisting personnel from other state agencies to help with the paperwork. It has also subsequently employed new technology to streamline the process.

By contrast, some gun store owners acted irresponsibly when they released firearms without waiting for the checks. The fact that they were legally entitled to doesn't make what they did right. And the suggestion that their customers should be presumed to have a right to gun ownership unless proven otherwise is absurd. By the same logic people wouldn't have to earn a drivers license unless it was proven they were incompetent behind the wheel.

The gun dealers fault the state for sticking with its own background check system instead of relying on a federal database that they can access themselves. But the federal database doesn't include everything that Maryland's does, including multiple drunken-driving convictions, violent juvenile offenses and domestic violence charges. Given Congress' inability to enact rational gun policy, Maryland is right to go its own way. In doing so, the state has sought a balance between public safety and the rights of gun owners. It's a shame that not all gun dealers have acted with similar concern.

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