Convicted criminals are buying handguns and assault weapons in Maryland under the knowing gaze of state police because of a legal loophole that allows the purchases.
Unable to bar the gun sales, state police have referred the names of 283 gun buyers convicted or accused of offenses such as assault and battery, felony theft and carrying a concealed weapon to federal authorities. Federal law prohibits such buyers from owning firearms, but a narrower state law doesn't stop them from buying the guns.
State officials say they have drafted legislation to close the loophole, and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said yesterday that he might advise state police to block such gun sales and defend themselves in court, if necessary.
Meanwhile, federal authorities say they don't have the resources to prosecute any but a fraction of the gun buyers for illegal possession of firearms. No cases have been referred to the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore for possible prosecution.
"We have skimmed about 20 right off the top who, based on their criminal history, need to be prosecuted," said David Troy, chief of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' Washington field office, which covers Maryland. "They are a bad group out there doing bad stuff right now."
But he conceded that such buyers "would be getting the guns anyway by straw purchases, off the black market or by falsifying the forms themselves." No official could point to any crime committed with a recently purchased gun by any of the 283, whose existence was first reported by the Washington Post.
Buyers of handguns and some assault weapons in Maryland must undergo a state police background check and wait seven days to receive their firearms. Until this spring, state police routinely rejected the applications of those deemed unacceptable by federal law -- felons, people convicted of misdemeanors punishable by more than two years in prison and those under indictment in such crimes.
But in April, Judge William McCullough ruled in Prince George's County Circuit Court that state police could not go beyond the scope of Maryland law in rejecting a would-be handgun purchase. Maryland law prohibits handgun purchases by people convicted of crimes ranging from arson to murder, but it does not cover as broad a spectrum of offenses as the federal statute.
"We had a gentleman who had been charged with assault with intent to murder and was found guilty of assault and battery and given five years in jail. By state law, that's not enough to disqualify him from buying a handgun," said Sgt. Bernard H. Shaw, supervisor of the state police firearms licensing section.
An assistant Maryland attorney general advised state police to follow the McCullough ruling and stop applying the federal standard to would-be gun buyers. But Mr. Curran, who said he did not know of that advice until yesterday, said he would meet with the state police superintendent, Col. Elmer H. Tippett, this week to consider going back to the old system.
"I wish we had even stronger laws," said Mr. Curran, a leader in the successful 1988 campaign to limit the types of handguns sold in Maryland. "My feeling would be we ought to do everything we can to enforce both state and federal law."
Gov. William Donald Schaefer's chief legislative officer, David S. Iannucci, said the administration was readying legislation to make the state law conform to the federal statute. He said the bill would be put before the General Assembly next month.
"We think it's a problem," Mr. Iannucci said. "We have to change the state law. . . . I think there will be a strong effort" to do so.
Sales of handguns and assault weapons in Maryland are up over 1990, Sergeant Shaw said. In the first 10 months of this year, 22,324 people applied to buy handguns or assault weapons, up from 20,692 for the same period in 1990. The applications of 417 were rejected, but 136 of those won the right to buy a gun after an appeal hearing, he said.