New debate rises over Maryland gun law

Backlog in background checks put gun in hands of carjacking suspect

January 11, 2014|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

More than 200 guns were sold to people legally barred from owning them as a surge in firearms sales last year overwhelmed Maryland's background check system, according to state police.

One gun was sold to a man later accused of using it in a carjacking in Prince George's County, police acknowledged in response to queries from The Baltimore Sun.

The sales occurred last year as part of a flurry before Maryland's tough new gun law — enacted following the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. — took effect. With Maryland State Police unable to keep up with the flood of background checks, some dealers distributed firearms to customers after waiting seven days, as they were allowed to do under state law. With the backlog mounting, dealers released more than 50,000 guns before checks were completed, state police said.

The agency has been months behind in completing some checks and is still tackling a backlog of more than 30,000 applications.

The number of firearms that wound up in the wrong hands has continued to climb since The Sun reported last summer that two dozen guns went to people barred from ownership. While all but six of the weapons have been recovered by troopers, the revelation that the backlog contributed to a violent crime is triggering a new debate over Maryland's firearm safety law.

"There was a failure of leadership in making sure that people who had prior felonies and convictions had no access to guns," said Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, a Democratic candidate for governor. "It was not managed well.  When there's a failure of leadership, people can get hurt."

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who championed the law that took effect in October, played down the significance of hundreds of guns ending up in the hands of people who ultimately failed background checks.

"In spite of this one unfortunate occurrence, the vast majority of guns released by dealers prior to the completion of a background check have been recovered quickly and without incident," O'Malley press secretary Nina Smith said in a statement.

The victim in the carjacking Oct. 9 in Lanham was unhurt, a Prince George's County police spokeswoman said. The next day, police arrested Davion Lavonta Ballinger of Upper Marlboro, who they said was 21, and charged him in the incident. Police recovered a pistol that state police spokesman Gregory Shipley said had been released by the seller before the agency could carry out a background check that would have revealed that the recipient was legally disqualified from owning a gun.

Shipley declined to say why Ballinger was barred from gun ownership, but his criminal record includes a 2009 arrest for armed robbery when he was a juvenile, which could have led to revocation of his gun rights in Maryland. That case was transferred to juvenile court, where the disposition is not public. Ballinger's lawyer declined to comment Friday.

Dealers and individual sellers released at least 220 guns to 213 people who ultimately failed background checks, Shipley said. By law, sellers can release a gun after waiting seven days, regardless of whether police have checked out the buyer.

Shipley acknowledged that there could well be other cases as state police work through the backlog of checks pending on gun sales that go back to late August.

"It's a mess," said Fred Kirchner, owner of a Chestertown gun shop and vice president of the Maryland Association of Firearms Retailers.

He says that state police have needlessly complicated the state's background check system and that he suspects that many of the buyers caught after the fact made "administrative errors" in filling out a screening questionnaire.

"That's the state police's fault, 100 percent," said Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Republican representing the upper Eastern Shore who champions gun owners' rights in the General Assembly. Smigiel has introduced a bill to repeal last year's sweeping gun control law, which bars the sale of some semiautomatic assault-type weapons and imposes new training and fingerprinting requirements and fees on handgun purchases.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, who helped steer passage of O'Malley's gun control legislation, said the backlog stemmed from "panic buying" stirred by gun-rights advocates, which has subsided. The Montgomery County Democrat said dealers were "playing with fire" when they released more than 50,000 guns before background checks could be performed.

State police have reduced the backlog of checks from a peak of 60,000 in October. But it could be five months before all the checks are completed, Shipley said.

"We're doing everything we can to accelerate the pace,'' he said. "We're not backing off any of our efforts until we get this completed."

Screening bogged down last year amid record sales of regulated firearms, with 121,000 applications filed in Maryland. The process initially defied streamlining, police officials said, as screeners had to manually check a prospective buyer's name against 16 databases.

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