Several Maryland lawmakers called yesterday for hearings on flaws in the state's criminal-records system that could enable thousands of people accused of assaulting their spouses, abusing their children or other domestic violence to buy guns even though they are legally barred from doing so.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) proposed the creation of an independent state agency that would oversee the way Maryland keeps criminal records, including domestic-violence restraining orders. Current records are maintained in an error-prone patchwork of overlapping systems managed by a host of different players, from the courts to the state police to local sheriff's departments, state officials acknowledged.
The Washington Post reported last week that thousands of people who are under domestic-violence restraining orders in Maryland would still be able to buy firearms because their names are not listed in records used for criminal background checks.
Although it is unclear how many people under restraining orders have actually purchased guns, the problem surfaced in September when a Laurel man, Richard Wayne Spicknall II, was charged with killing his two young children. Spicknall was able to purchase the handgun he allegedly used at a pawnshop, even though his wife had obtained a protective order against him in Howard County.
"We've seen the tragedy that can happen when the system is not airtight," Townsend said, referring to the Spicknall case. "There are too many cracks in the system and too much finger-pointing that goes on when something falls through. We need a seamless statewide information system that has some power to make sure that things get done."
As many as half the people subject to restraining orders in Maryland are not named in databases that state police and the FBI use to conduct background checks, public records show.
Part of the problem is that some local police and sheriff's departments take weeks or months to enter restraining orders into statewide law enforcement databases. Many protective orders that are entered contain errors that render them useless.
But some local law enforcement agents say they are only partly responsible. They complain that the state's computer databases--operated by the state police and maintained by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services--are slow and unreliable.
Moreover, public records reveal that Maryland State Police have known about the problem for years but have moved slowly to fix it. The agency received $132,000 in state and federal grants in 1997 and 1998 to conduct audits and make sure that local police and sheriff's departments process restraining orders correctly. But grant records show that state police have spent only one-quarter of the money.
Col. David B. Mitchell, superintendent of the state police, said yesterday that his agency had done everything it could. He said state police had audited local jurisdictions and told them exactly what they needed to do to avoid problems with the restraining orders.
"I think that's a question they have to answer--as to what priority they are placing on this," Mitchell said. "Each agency has to answer for their own performance. . . . We corresponded with them directly. There's no way a police chief or a sheriff could not know precisely what's happening with this issue."
But Mitchell said he would not release the audits.
Meanwhile, lawmakers complained that state and local agencies have been quick to deflect blame but slow to take responsibility, leaving the problem to fester.
"Things are falling through the cracks that shouldn't be falling through the cracks," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford), who has been active in domestic-violence issues. "There needs to be an investigation to find out where we went wrong. And somebody needs to step up to the plate and decide who is responsible for fixing this."
Sen. Leo E. Green (D-Prince George's) said he planned to quiz state officials about the problem at the next meeting of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, of which he is vice chairman.
"Normally, when we have breakdowns like this, they all point fingers the other way," he said. "But this a serious matter that needs to be fixed."
Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery), who heads a subcommittee that oversees the state police budget, said she is contemplating hearings on the issue. "I'm extremely concerned that some people out there might be in danger because of this," she said. "This is totally unacceptable to me."
In the House, Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery) heads another subcommittee that may also hold hearings. "We have some jawboning that we can do," he said. "Right now, it sounds like people are saying, 'It's not my fault--it's somebody else's fault.' . . . It's kind of a sorry situation."