Senate Puts Condition on State Police
By Craig Whitlock and Amy Argetsinger
Police acknowledged last week that between December and mid-March, the agency failed to make thousands of background checks within the state-mandated seven-day waiting period for purchasing handguns mistakes that enabled dozens of convicted criminals and other ineligible buyers to purchase weapons.
Police said they have since eliminated a backlog of about 1,500 overdue background checks, attributing the delays in part to a new computer system. Legislators said they had questions about how long the problems had been going on questions that state police said yesterday they couldn't answer.
"This is a strong message we're sending to the police," said Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the measure. "If they get their act together, it's not being harsh at all."
Police initially said that the backlog began in December and that delays before then were "isolated incidents."
But state police Capt. C. Thomas Bowers, the new head of the agency's firearms licensing division, said yesterday that he was trying to determine the extent of the problem and didn't know whether other criminals had been allowed to buy handguns before December because police didn't make background checks in time.
Documents and interviews with gun dealers, however, show that police have struggled for years to make background checks on time in Maryland and that it has not been uncommon for criminals to wind up with weapons as a result of breakdowns in procedures.
Steve Schneider, owner of Atlantic Guns in Silver Spring and president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association, estimated that police have failed to complete background checks within the alloted time in about 80 percent of handgun sales he has made at his store over the last five years.
"It's a systemic problem. It's been happening for years," Schneider said. "My intention is not to make the Maryland State Police look bad. But it's one of those things that has been swept under the carpet."
Under Maryland law, gun dealers must wait seven days before completing a handgun sale, giving state police time to carry out a background check. If police do not respond or notify dealers of problems after a week, dealers may go ahead and release the weapon to the buyer.
Although he couldn't specify how many, Schneider said he has sold "some" handguns to people whom police later had to track down to confiscate the weapon because they failed to complete a timely background check.
"It doesn't happen often, but absolutely, I think every dealer has had that happen to them," he said.
State auditors found similar problems when they reviewed a random sampling of handgun sales in 1995. The audit looked at 25 cases in which state police rejected individual applications to buy handguns. In 14 of those cases, however, police took longer than seven days to complete the background checks, including one check that took 97 days. In three of the cases, police had to find the buyers afterward and seize their weapons.
Some gun dealers said state police sometimes take months even years to process background checks.
Mike McAdams, owner of AArundel Arms and Ammunition Inc., an Annapolis gun store, said he has complained to state police about a handgun application he submitted in November 1996. Although he handed over the gun to the customer a month later, he said, he still hasn't received a response from state police on the outcome of the required check. In another case, he said, police waited eight months to respond.
"This is common. It's part and parcel of how they operate," McAdams said. "It's a constant problem."
The Senate decision to possibly withhold funding from the state police was approved as part of a budget amendment for the fiscal year beginning July 1. It requires the state police to submit a report on the background checks by June 1 or have $1 million withheld from the agency's operating funds. The measure also calls for an independent audit, to be completed by Oct. 1.
Ruben said lawmakers were upset that state police leaders had told them earlier in the legislative session that background checks were generally proceeding on a timely basis.
"We were furious," she said. "This is a big problem. We should have been made aware of it."
Del. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who also has called for an independent audit of how the state police carry out background checks, said she was pleased with the Senate's vote.
"Withholding budget money guarantees an even more rapid response," she said.
State police said that they are conducting an internal investigation and that they would share the results with lawmakers. "It's our intention to cooperate fully with members of the legislature and provide them with whatever they need," said state police spokesman Capt. Greg Shipley.
Bowers, who was named last week to head the licensing division in an administrative shake-up by state police Superintendent David B. Mitchell, said the agency would take steps to prevent another backlog.
"We're looking at what happened, how it happened and how we can prevent it from happening in the future," he said.
Under federal and state law, people who have been convicted of a felony, certain misdemeanor charges or a crime involving domestic violence are prohibited from purchasing firearms. Those with a history of alcoholism, drug addiction or mental health problems also are not allowed.
State police scrambled to confiscate 54 handguns that they thought had been sold to criminals and other ineligible buyers after the most recent backlog of delayed background checks came to light, although authorities later determined that five of the guns had been sold properly.
State police said they have no evidence that any of the weapons were used to commit crimes. But a U.S. Customs Service spokeswoman said yesterday that customs agents had seized one of the handguns in New York from a person who was illegally trying to take it out of the country.
State police said 27 people who were ineligible to buy the guns have been arrested. Most of them have been charged with illegal possession of a pistol or perjury for lying on their applications. Prosecutors are weighing charges against other buyers, police said.
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