A Laurel man was able to buy the handgun he allegedly used to kill his two young children last week because a clerk in the Howard County sheriff's office misinterpreted the wording of a protective order obtained by the man's wife and took him off the gun ban list, officials said yesterday.

Under federal law, Richard W. Spicknall II, 27, who has been charged with shooting to death his daughter Destiny Array Spicknall, 3, and his son Richard Wayne Spicknall III, 2, should have been prohibited from buying a handgun for a year after the children's mother, Lisa Spicknall, obtained a restraining order against him in December 1998.

But his name was removed from the county's gun ban list a month later. On Aug. 18, Spicknall walked into a College Park pawnshop, filled out an application that indicated he was not the subject of any restraining order and was able to pick up his 9mm handgun on Sept. 2.

"As with any computer database, the information must be properly maintained for it to be of value to us," said Maj. Thomas Bowers, commander of the state police criminal enforcement division, which oversees gun checks.

An internal investigation ordered by Howard County Sheriff Charles M. Cave (R) found that a sheriff's deputy correctly entered Spicknall's name into the gun ban database on the day the protective order was granted.

Chief Deputy Sheriff R. Scott Mergenthaler said yesterday that a clerical worker in the sheriff's office, conducting a regular audit of the database the next month, saw the word "consent" in the protective order, believed Spicknall did not belong on the gun ban list and took his name off.

Both Spicknall and his wife agreed to the order, which made it a consent protective order. Federal law prohibits anyone under a protective order -- including a consent protective order -- from buying guns for one year.

"It was their understanding that since it had the word consent on it, he was no longer prohibited from purchasing a gun," Mergenthaler said. "This case was strictly a human error."

Mergenthaler declined to identify the clerical worker, and said no disciplinary action will be taken.

He said the internal investigation found that the same mistake had been made in three other Howard County cases in the last year. Mergenthaler said none of the other mistakes has resulted in a gun-related crime.

He said Maryland State Police are investigating whether any of the other people mistakenly taken off the gun ban list have attempted to purchase a gun. All three errors were corrected yesterday, Merganthaler said.

The results of the Howard County investigation came as Spicknall was formally charged in court in Easton with first-degree murder in the death of his daughter and as Talbot County State's Attorney Scott Patterson said he is considering whether to seek the death penalty in the case. Spicknall was charged last week with killing his son.

"This is a possible capital case," Patterson said. "We've haven't reached that decision yet but we are considering it."

Spicknall is being held without bond at the Talbot County jail, and the warden said Spicknall has been placed on a suicide watch.

Under Maryland law, Patterson could seek the death penalty because Spicknall is accused of a double murder. Both children were found last Thursday, shot point-blank, as they sat strapped in their car seats in their grandfather's Jeep, which was parked behind a house under construction on the banks of the Choptank River on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Richard III was pronounced dead a short time later at the Dorchester County hospital; Destiny died Friday at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

Their father had called Maryland State Police about 2:30 a.m. that day and reported that the car and the children had been taken by a hitchhiker he had stopped to pick up on the Malkus Bridge over the Choptank as he drove with the children to meet relatives in Ocean City, Md.

Spicknall has told them that he threw the Smith & Wesson 9 mm handgun in the Choptank River. Police divers have searched the river for three days, but the weapon has not been found, authorities said yesterday.

Yesterday, family and friends crowded the McCully-Polyniak Funeral Home in Pasadena for a private wake. Jeff Gross, a friend speaking on behalf of Lisa Spicknall's family, said the family was glad finally to have a day of private mourning after the whirlwind of national attention provoked by the children's death.

Gross, when asked whether Richard Spicknall's relatives were participating in the funeral, said simply, "The families of the children have been invited, and the families of the children are here."

Staff writer Amy Argetsinger contributed to this report.