Senator calls for federal investigation of firearms application processing -- Gazette.Net


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State Sen. Nancy Jacobs wants federal investigators to look into whether state officials broke any laws by allowing workers from state agencies other than the Maryland State Police to process paperwork for firearm purchase applications.

Jacobs (R-Dist. 34) of Abingdon said she thinks there needs to be a federal investigation into the decision to use employees of five state agencies to help enter information on firearms applications to help reduce a massive backlog of applications resulting from a state gun-control law that goes into effect Oct. 1.

In a Sept. 8 letter to Gov. Martin O’Malley, Jacobs called the decision to bring in the other state employees “unconscionable,” suggesting it may have violated state law requiring that state police employees must review applications before background investigations of gun applicants are done.

If the FBI office in Baltimore were to receive a request from Jacobs for an investigation, they would consult with FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Maryland and the Department of Justice to see what steps might be taken, said Richard Wolf, spokesman for the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office.

Up to 200 employees from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Department of Transportation, Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Department of Human Resources, and Department of Juvenile Services had been working since Sept. 6 to enter data from the state police’s backlog of more than 38,000 firearms purchase applications at the end of August.

Three of the five agencies had finished their work by Thursday, and the other two agencies were expected to finish Thursday, Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said Thursday.

A controversial gun-control law that goes into effect Oct. 1 will place new restrictions on buying handguns and certain assault weapons, causing an unprecedented surge in applications for purchases ahead of the new regulations.

In 2010, state police received about 744 applications per week, Shipley said.

In 2013, that number has jumped to about 2,400 per week.

State police have tried several ways to address the problem, including adding civilian employees and troopers to their Licensing Division, and increasing the division’s hours to 21 hours a day, seven days a week.

The new process was meant to have the other agency employees enter basic information, freeing up state police employees to conduct the background checks and investigations, Shipley said.

Jacobs and other legislators argue that having information handled by people other than state police employees leaves the people who filed the applications vulnerable to having their confidential information stolen.

In her letter to O’Malley, Jacobs cited emails from federal workers who fear their security clearances may have been compromised by their firearms applications seen by non-state police personnel.

Del. Michael Smigiel (R-Dist. 36) of Elkton, another critic of the move, said it was very likely that some people will find their jobs affected by their security clearances being seen by state employees who shouldn’t have access to that information.

In a release issued Saturday, state police said the state employees from the various agencies all handled sensitive information on a regular basis in their normal jobs, including mental health records, driving records and social services records.

But while they may regularly handle personal information, they’re not certified law enforcement officers such as the state police employees who normally do the applications, Jacobs said.

Asked about it, Shipley pointed out that gun store employees who intially take customers’ applications aren’t police officers either.

Del. Kevin Kelly (R-Dist. 1B) of Cumberland sent a letter on Sept. 8 to Attorney General Doug Gansler (D) requesting an opinion on the legality of bringing in the other workers.

The application forms have a great deal of private information, and bringing in “200 strangers from five different departments” was likely to lead to problems, Kelly said Wednesday.

In two letters to State Police Superintendent Col. Marcus Brown, Smigiel questioned what measures had been put in place to ensure the security of the information that was being processed by the state workers.

Smigiel said he’d met with O’Malley on Thursday and made suggestions for how the state’s background check system could be improved to speed up the process.

Asked about Jacobs’s request for an investigation, Smigiel said he thought it was important to fix the problem before worrying about who is responsible.

He said he thinks the issue will be addressed in several lawsuits that will be filed involving the state’s gun-control legislation.

“I think there will be reviews in the federal courts of some of these policies and procedures,” Smigiel said.

Shipley said the application information was parceled out to each of the five agencies on encrypted discs, and each agency was given a separate log-in and password.

The data are entered onto a website, with the date, time and IP address of each entry monitored by state police personnel to make sure each entry was coming from a proper state government address, he said.

Access to the website was shut down as each agency completed its work, while the last two agencies’ access would be shut off immediately when they finish their work, he said.

rmarshall@gazette.net