Maryland State Police took an average of 32 days to process handgun applications in January--more than four times as long as the seven days allowed by law, enabling convicted felons and other ineligible buyers to purchase weapons they weren't supposed to have.

That is the finding of an extensive audit of the state police firearms licensing program conducted by the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services for the General Assembly and released to state officials yesterday.

Although the 25-page audit, the first independent review of the state police system, found that no application in January was completed within the required time, it also found that by June the application processing time had shrunk to an average of less than four days. It credited a new police management team for the improvement, and indicated that the number of rejected applications has about doubled.

During the last General Assembly session, state police officials acknowledged that their permiting process was swamped: They said they had a backlog of 1,500 background checks that took longer than the seven days required by law, but they did not say how long it took them to process the average application. About 2,300 applications are filed a month.

Still, the revelation was enough to send police officers to the homes of those who had purchased guns they were not supposed to have. Authorities determined that from December to mid-March, at least 49 convicted criminals and other ineligible buyers had purchased handguns. Officers who confiscated dozens of firearms said none was used in a crime.

During the same period, 10 other people were allowed to buy guns even though they had criminal charges pending against them--including a Baltimore woman who used the gun to fatally shoot her husband in March. Although the woman and the other nine criminal suspects were not legally prohibited from purchasing firearms, state police said they should have placed the applications on hold until the charges were resolved.

The audit found that state police still lack adequate controls to check for the accuracy of gun permitting information. And it said the computer systems used to do the checks "hinder the effective and efficient processing of firearms applications."

Under Maryland law, gun dealers must wait up to 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 release the weapon to the buyer. When state police acknowledged their backlog in the spring, angry legislators threatened to withhold some of the department's funding until it caught up. The state police superintendent, Col. David B. Mitchell, replaced the supervisors of the application processing unit.

"The glare of publicity clearly put pressure on the state police," Del. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who sits on the House Appropriations public safety subcommittee that first raised concerns about the backlogs, said yesterday. She called the 32 days it took for application review "unbelievable."

"It gave too wide an opportunity for criminals to have access to guns," she said.

Yesterday, a state police spokesman, Maj. Greg Shipley, said the audit showed the agency had fixed the backlog problems. He declined to comment specifically on the audit's disclosure that it took state police more than a month, on average, to conduct background checks in January.

"We knew, obviously, that there were significant problems," Shipley said. "And the new management team went in and was able to fix them."

Gun dealers said they've noticed improvements since the changes.

Randy Reynolds, manager of Atlantic Guns in Silver Spring, one of the largest gun dealers in the state, said that in January state police regularly took as long as 60 days to review gun-purchase applications submitted by his store.

Since then, Reynolds said, applications are reviewed much more quickly. "With the changes they have made there, they have been able to stay on top of it. It's been great."