State police have about a six-week backlog of gun-purchaser background checks, spokesperson Gregory Shipley says, pending a $400,000 system to partially automate and speed up the process.
Gun purchases exploded late last year, after the school massacre in Newton, Conn., prompted calls for stricter gun laws, including revival of an assault weapons ban, restrictions on high-capacity magazines, and more careful background checks. Maryland requires a background check on anyone buying a handgun or a gun on its assault weapon list. State police were overwhelmed by the influx.
"In calendar year 2011 there were 46,339 applications for regulated firearms purchases," Shipley says. (Only 858 were rejected-less than 2 percent). "In 2012 there were 70,019." The waning months of that year saw the big increases, which began after President Obama's reelection. Shipley says there were 7,247 applications in November, 11,560 in December, and 14,238 in January of 2013. That's more than three times the January 2012 total.
The increase in gun purchases is national and has swamped the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that the FBI uses. States depend on the FBI for their out-of-state background checks, called NICS.
"The FBI used to do NICS checks in a few minutes," Shipley says. "Anecdotally, now, it's a couple of days."
To do a background check, Shipley says, the state police's civilian and sworn personnel must enter each name into 17 different databases. This is done by hand, 21 hours per day, seven days a week. "The only reason they don't work 24 hours is because most databases shut down for a few hours" each night for updating and maintenance.
Shipley says he hopes the department will get some new software that will fill in multiple forms with the names so they don't have to type each one 17 times.
Even with the data available, a single check could take a lot of time, Shipley says. An applicant could have a 20-year-old conviction that is not clear in the court record. "It might take a while to see if it's a prohibiting offense," he says. "It's labor-intensive."