Thousands of people who are barred from owning guns because they are under domestic-violence restraining orders in Maryland would still be able to buy a firearm because their names are not listed in law enforcement computer systems used for criminal background checks, public records show.
The records also reveal that Maryland State Police have known about the problem for years but have moved slowly to fix it.
Although it is unclear how many people under such restraining orders have actually purchased guns, four women in the Maryland suburbs in the past four years have been shot to death even though they had obtained a protective order against their attackers.
The problem was further exposed last month when a Laurel man, Richard Wayne Spicknall II, allegedly used a handgun to kill his two young children. Authorities said Spicknall mistakenly was allowed to buy the gun, even though his wife had obtained a restraining order against him in Howard County.
At the time, authorities blamed a clerical error for the mix-up and described it as an isolated incident.
But an examination of public records by The Washington Post shows that as many as half of the people subject to restraining orders in Maryland are not listed in databases that state police and the FBI use to conduct criminal background checks for gun purchases.
Many other protective orders are not logged into computers for several weeks or months, and those that are in the database often contain errors that render them useless, according to records and interviews with law enforcement officials.
"The hesitation and failure to enter these correctly is causing problems," said Maryland District Court Chief Judge Martha Rasin. "I don't think it's a crisis, but it's a broken system that needs fixing."
Rasin has met recently with Maryland State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell, U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia and other top officials to discuss the problem. Battaglia said she was concerned because the missing or delayed restraining orders in Maryland are also not being entered into federal law enforcement databases--which could make it possible for stalkers and spouse abusers to pass criminal background checks if they tried to purchase guns in other states.
The errors persist even though state police received a total of $132,000 in federal and state grants in 1997 and 1998 to train clerks at sheriff's departments and courthouses across Maryland how to process protective orders properly and make sure they are correctly entered into federal and state law enforcement databases. But grant records show that the agency spent only about one-quarter of the money and has missed numerous deadlines to finish the projects.
Authorities said solutions will not be easy.
"Somebody needs to find out what the scope of the problem is," said Maj. Doug Ward, a commander for the Maryland State Police, which, along with the FBI, is responsible for conducting gun-purchase background checks. "I don't know of anyone who can tell me how many protective orders are issued, how many are entered [in law enforcement databases], what's the difference, and why. That's what we're trying to step up and find out."
People who are the subject of domestic-violence restraining orders are prohibited from possessing, receiving or purchasing firearms under federal law.
"I think it was just the luck of the draw that there wasn't a Spicknall case before now," said Carole Alexander, executive director of the House of Ruth in Baltimore, a group that counsels battered women. "It takes a Spicknall case for people to start jumping around. Even now, the lack of information suggests indifference in regard to this issue or just gross incompetence."
Authorities said they don't know how many restraining orders are in effect in Maryland at any given time.
Statistics provided by Maryland court officials show that 8,276 restraining orders were issued statewide from July 1, 1998, to June 30, 1999. Because protective orders generally remain in effect for 12 months, court officials said, that figure provides a reasonable estimate of the total number of orders that should be logged into the state's law enforcement databases.
But documents filed with the governor's office of crime control and prevention indicate that the state police can find only about half that many protective orders in their computer system, which is used for criminal background checks of gun buyers.
According to four surveys between March 1998 and January 1999, the number of orders filed with state police ranged between 3,053 and 4,292.
Authorities blamed the record-keeping failures on a number of factors.
The state police said many sheriff's departments--which are responsible for serving protective orders after they are approved by a judge--are slow to enter the results in the state's law enforcement databases. Some local agencies conceded this, but they also criticized the state police computer system as being outdated, complicated and prone to breakdowns.
At the Prince George's County Sheriff's Department, for example, there is a stack of 350 protective orders on a shelf waiting to be logged into a computer, a backlog that officials said could take up to three months to sort through.
Lt. Louis Oertley, who heads the department's domestic-violence unit, said he was hamstrung by a staff shortage. But he also noted that the state law enforcement database had been frozen most of this past week. Even when it's working, he said, the system is slow; it takes 10 minutes on average to enter a restraining-order record, he said, compared with about 60 seconds to enter a criminal warrant.
The result, he said, is that battered spouses and abused children can't be assured that their assailants won't be able to go out and buy a gun, even if a judge has approved a restraining order.
"It's something that affects people's lives," said Oertley, a board member of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. "I can tell you I'm not happy with how we're doing. We're not getting them in on time. And then there's the question of whether we're doing it accurately."
Of the restraining orders that are listed in the state police computers, most contain mistakes or are missing details. A state police audit found that 86 percent of restraining orders entered in the agency's database had errors, according to documents filed in January with the governor's office of crime control and prevention.
Ward said many of the errors were minor, such as a missing Social Security number or eye color of the person named in a restraining order.
But other errors are more crucial. For instance, Spicknall was able to purchase a handgun because a clerk in the Howard County Sheriff's Department misinterpreted the wording of the protective order against him and mistakenly removed his name from the list of people ineligible to purchase firearms.
In a meeting last week with the Maryland Sheriffs Association, the governor's office of crime control and prevention offered to provide grants to sheriff's departments to hire more clerks to process protective orders, said Michael A. Sarbanes, the agency's executive director. Applications are being prepared now, he said.
The office of crime control has tried before to hand out money to fix the problem. The agency approved three grants totaling $132,000 for the state police in 1997 and 1998 to train sheriff's department employees how to process restraining orders. The grants were also supposed to pay for audits to make sure each county in Maryland is properly entering the orders into the state's law enforcement databases.
But state police so far have spent only about $34,000 on the projects--even though the grants were originally supposed to expire several months ago, records show.
Ward said some training and audits did occur. But he said that state police auditors were diverted to other duties and that other staffers were out sick. The state police have received approval to extend the grants and plan to use the rest of the money soon, he said.
"Could there have been more done?" he said. "Yes, there could have been more done."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.