Maryland lawmakers yesterday gave a tongue-lashing to state police, sheriffs and court officials, blaming them for bureaucratic lapses and mistakes that could allow people accused of domestic violence to buy guns.
"I think there is somebody out there who is being lazy about their job," Sen. Walter M. Baker (D-Cecil) said at a special Senate hearing in Annapolis. "You guys are sitting around here pointing your fingers at each other when you should be working together to work this out. I've been here 21 years, and I just don't believe it."
Thousands of people barred from owning firearms because they are under domestic violence restraining orders in Maryland could still possibly buy guns because their names are not listed in law enforcement computer systems used for criminal background checks, The Washington Post reported last month.
The problem came to light in September when a Laurel man, Richard Wayne Spicknall II, was charged with killing his two young children with a handgun that he mistakenly was allowed to buy, even though his estranged wife had obtained a restraining order against him.
County sheriffs, Maryland State Police top brass and District Court officials all acknowledged the problem yesterday.
Many counties have taken weeks or months to enter restraining orders into law enforcement computer systems, although state audits show that hundreds and perhaps thousands of orders have not been entered. State police records also indicate that many of the processed orders are rife with errors.
Although law enforcement officials said they were moving quickly to fix the problem, they warned that there are no guarantees that more wife beaters, child abusers and others accused of domestic violence couldn't slip through the system and buy a gun.
"That is a risk," State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell said. "We have seen the tragedy that can happen when the system is not airtight."
Sheriffs said they had worked overtime in recent weeks to eliminate backlogs of unprocessed domestic violence restraining orders, but no one could say how many records were still missing from computer databases that the FBI and state police use to conduct background checks for gun purchases.
Similarly, state police said they had no way of knowing how many people accused of domestic violence have been able to purchase guns.
Lawmakers yesterday expressed frustration at the lack of clear answers and fuzzy estimates of how long it would take to solve the problem.
"You really don't have a clue where we are," Sen. Richard Colburn (R-Dorchester) told Mitchell.
"A lot of things have fallen through the cracks that should not have fallen through the cracks," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford).
Added Sen. Philip C. Jimeno (D-Anne Arundel): "Why does it take such a crisis to bring this before us today?"
Law enforcement officials who testified before the Senate committee blamed a host of ills, including computer problems and lack of money, staff and authority.
For instance, state police, who are responsible for conducting criminal background checks on handgun buyers, said they are wholly dependent on sheriffs and local police departments to add the names of domestic abusers to law enforcement databases.
If the names don't get entered, Mitchell said, there's not much state police can do. "If it sits," Mitchell said of the restraining order paperwork, "we in the state police have no way of knowing" that certain people should be prohibited from buying guns.
In turn, sheriffs said they were overworked and didn't have enough employees to process restraining orders. They complained that the state's law enforcement databases--maintained by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services--were antiquated and painstakingly slow.
They also directed some blame at the courts, saying that they do a sloppy job of filling out restraining order forms and suggesting that judges often scribbled indecipherable notes in the margins.
Anne Arundel County Sheriff George F. Johnson IV, president of the Maryland Sheriffs Association, said it would be better if court clerks took over the responsibility for processing restraining orders.
"The District Court is the central agency to take care of this," he said. "But we don't have the authority to force them to do that."
Court officials noted that state law requires sheriffs and local police departments to enter restraining orders into law enforcement databases.
The testimony prompted a rebuke from Baker, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "You better get your procedures straightened out, because I really don't like what I'm hearing," he said.
Afterward, Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery), chairman of a subcommittee on public safety, said lawmakers were trying to send a clear message that they want the problem fixed immediately.
"The idea that a lot of people are pointing fingers is something that has to stop," she said. "There is a problem. They all have to work together to solve it."
Ruben noted that last spring, when it was revealed that state police were weeks behind in conducting criminal background checks for handgun purchases, her subcommittee voted to withhold $1 million from the agency's budget until the shortcomings were ironed out.
"They don't want that to happen again," she said. "We're going to see action. We better see action."
The House of Delegates is scheduled to take up the issue with its own hearings next week. Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery) said his subcommittee, which also oversees the state police budget, would likewise be asking tough questions.
"This is an intolerable situation," he said. "We're going to do a lot of jawboning to make sure they respond."
CAPTION: State Sen. Walter Baker, shown in 1995, says officials must work together to close handgun loophole.