Maryland State Police said yesterday that 10 people were allowed to purchase handguns last winter even though they had criminal charges pending against them for alleged offenses that included assault, drug possession and auto theft.

The 10 criminal suspects applied to buy the handguns during a three-month period from December to March, when state police were struggling to sort through a backlog of 1,500 requests to purchase firearms. Although the suspects were not legally prohibited from buying guns, state police say they should have delayed the applications until the charges were resolved.

Capt. Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman, said yesterday that the agency is monitoring the outcome of the 10 cases and will confiscate the weapons if the gun buyers ultimately are convicted of crimes that would prohibit them from owning firearms. Until then, however, state police do not have the authority to repossess the weapons, Shipley said.

State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell said this week that he has ordered the agency automatically to delay handgun sales to anyone who has been charged with a crime and is facing trial. In the past, state police had the option to place such handgun applications on "hold" but were not legally required to do so.

Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery) said the issue of whether people merely accused of crimes should be restricted from buying weapons is a gray area that lawmakers should address in the next General Assembly session.

"The bad news is that 10 people slipped through, but the good news is that the state police are scrutinizing these people very carefully," said Franchot, chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees public safety. "It opens up the issue of whether there should be a broader review of what the background check should include."

One of the handgun buyers was a Baltimore woman charged with theft who allegedly used the gun to fatally shoot her husband on March 27 at his workplace in Laurel. The suspect in that case, Sirena Catura Whittington, 26, was arrested three days after the shooting and charged with first-degree murder. She is being held without bond in the Prince George's County jail.

Police did not identify the nine other suspects who were allowed to obtain handguns, but they did provide a brief description of the charges pending against them and where they are facing trial.

Among the most serious charges are auto theft, second-degree assault, drug possession and illegal sale of a firearm, police said. Three of the cases are in Baltimore County, while both Howard County and Baltimore City have two cases. Prince George's County and Carroll County each have one case.

Under federal and state law, people who have been convicted of a felony, certain misdemeanors or a crime involving domestic violence are forbidden to purchase firearms. Those with a history of alcoholism, drug addiction or mental illness are also prohibited.

Under Maryland law, gun dealers must wait seven days before completing a handgun sale so that state police have time to carry out a criminal 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.