Gun-buying frenzy in a summer of violence

Efforts to reduce Baltimore shootings come as Marylanders stock up on firearms

August 02, 2013|Dan Rodricks

When it comes to guns, there's Baltimore and there's the rest of Maryland. The city has a horrible problem with guns; the rest of the state can't seem to get enough of them. In Baltimore, people are marching against gun violence; in the rest of the state, they're lining up to buy guns by the thousands.

Some gun dealers have been so eager to move inventory this year that they've sold weapons to people with criminal records.

Indeed, with our largest city suffering through a summer of almost daily gun violence, Marylanders are in the midst of a gun-buying frenzy.

But I have to stop here, after pointing out the dichotomous and the ironic, to ask: What did we expect?

Baltimore has had a terrible problem with gun violence for decades, but the major effort to control guns in Maryland came only after a massacre in an elementary school in Connecticut. Aside from the 1980s ban on cheap handguns known as Saturday night specials, we saw no effort at gun control like the one in the post-Newtown legislative session that ended in April.

Certainly late is better than never. But, given what came out of the General Assembly this year, no one should be shocked that Marylanders are buying firearms at such a pace that law enforcement can't keep up with the background checks that are key to keeping guns out of the hands of people with criminal histories.

The legislature created this frenzy. The new gun control law, which passed in spring, takes effect in October. It allows gun dealers to sell out their stocks until then. So no wonder there's a gun rush. In fact, it has been going on all year.

Del. Luiz Simmons, a Democrat from Montgomery County, predicted that we could see up to 100,000 new assault-style weapons in private hands by Halloween.

The delegate's estimate was higher than the one Maryland State Police gave the legislature. But, with 70,000 applications for gun purchases filed so far this year, Simmons might not be far off.

There are so many applications for gun purchases that the state police reports a backlog of 100 days to complete the background checks.

The background check is supposed to be completed within seven days. But some dealers apparently have decided not to wait and they've released guns to customers without a background check. So far, that has resulted in 30 guns going to people who, by law, shouldn't own them. (Fortunately, state police have recovered all of those guns.)

Certainly this shouldn't have happened at all. Licensed gun dealers completely violate the spirit of the law when, aware of the state police backlog, they release a gun after seven days without a check.

I guess you could moralize about that all day.

But let me stop here and give some props to the dealers for all the guns they haven't released without a check. I think they've shown remarkable restraint. Out of 70,000 applications, only 30 guns went to people with criminal records. That's a .996 batting average.

Like it or not, people have a right to buy guns. If you're going to pass a law requiring them to wait for seven days — a perfectly sound idea — you have to provide enough staff to process the applications in a timely manner. By any standard, a 100-day wait for something as simple as a criminal background check is unreasonable.

We shouldn't blame the state police for this mess, but the O'Malley administration for what looks like a slow response to a demand that everyone knew was coming. This mess isn't about greedy dealers; it's about an administration that can't keep its part of a bargain in the political deal that created Maryland's new law.

But let me stop here, and get back to my original observation about how crazy this looks — Baltimore suffering through a season of gun violence while private sales of guns go off the charts across the state.

Marylanders who stock up on guns might consider themselves removed from Baltimore's problems, from the drug dealing and collateral violence, far from the gangs. But the more massive the private inventory of guns in the state — the more guns in suburban bedrooms — the greater the chance that guns end up in the wrong hands.

Nearly 1,000 guns were reported lost or stolen from federally licensed gun dealers in Maryland last year, the third-highest number of any state in the country, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Another 1,900 were reported lost or stolen from private property.

I believe in the ultimate effectiveness of measures to control and limit guns — especially the ban on semi-automatic rifles that make massacres possible and the new licensure and fingerprint measure that will reduce straw man purchases.

But the real fight against violence is in the daily grind of police work aimed at what Baltimore's former commissioner called "bad guys with guns." And that job is just made tougher when the volume of guns around us expands far beyond reason.

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