OF ALL THE people who should be strictly forbidden from buying guns anywhere, those accused of domestic violence ought to rank high. That's the law in Maryland, but nobody has a grip on the controls. State senators who quizzed police, sheriffs and court officials this week about holes in the background-check system got little more than shrugs and finger-pointing. The chilling fact is that thousands of people barred from owning firearms because they are under domestic violence restraining orders could still possibly buy guns: Their names aren't listed in computer systems used for criminal background checks.

Discovery of this inexcusably poor records system came in September when a Laurel man was charged with killing his two young children with a handgun he was able to buy even though his wife had obtained a restraining order against him. Many counties have taken weeks, even months, to enter such orders into their computer systems; state audits show that perhaps thousands of orders haven't been entered at all. Some orders that have been processed are riddled with mistakes.

Various authorities testified that they are working hard to clear up the troubles. But child abusers, wife beaters and others may still be slipping through the system. Take your pick of excuses offered: computer problems, lack of money, staff and authority, poor court records and that old standby -- it was some other agency's fault.

Critics of gun safety laws will be quick to chant that no new laws should be enacted until those on the books are enforced. More protections are needed no matter what, but certainly existing laws must be strictly enforced. State Sen. Ida G. Ruben of Montgomery County, chairman of a subcommittee on public safety, noted that when it came to light last spring 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 problems were worked out. "They don't want that to happen again," she said. "We're going to see action. We better see action." Gov. Glendening, take note.