In the wake of another NRA-sponsored lawsuit, the Maryland State Police on September 19, 2013, announced the termination of a program which shared sensitive personal information of firearms purchasers with state agencies and employees that were unauthorized to receive it. Joining NRA in the suit were the Maryland Licensed Firearm Dealers Association, Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore, Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association, and Maryland Shall Issue. The victory marked the second time in 2013 that Maryland authorities executed an abrupt about-face after the filing of an NRA-backed lawsuit aimed at protecting the “Free-State’s” gun owners.
The problem addressed by the lawsuit stemmed from Maryland’s redundant background check, seven-day waiting period, and registration process, which subjects purchasers of handguns and some semi-automatic long-guns to an additional 77R application. In 2013, Maryland, like much of the country, experienced a steep increase in gun sales due to federal and state attempts to curb the right to bear arms. The situation in Maryland was particularly acute, as Governor Martin O’Malley pushed for, and succeeded in enacting, strict new gun controls, including new licensing requirements for handgun purchasers and a ban on popular semiautomatic firearms.
The sharp increase in gun purchases created a severe backlog in the State Police’s system for processing 77R applications. In some cases, prospective buyers were forced to wait 10 weeks for their applications to go through and to take possession of their firearms. An NRA suit aimed at targeting the State Attorney General and the Maryland State Police provided some relief by forcing the state to acknowledge that a dealer could release a firearm to a buyer after the seven-day waiting period without State Police approval of their application, but the backlog of applications remained.
In a misguided attempt to relieve the backlog, Governor Martin O’Malley directed the creation of an “all hands on deck” approach that drafted employees of other state agencies to help process the 77R forms. As a result, sensitive gun owner information -- including mental health and criminal records, Social Security numbers, and residential addresses -- was exposed to at least five state agencies outside the State Police. According to a September 7th news release by the Maryland State Police, these agencies included “the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Department of Transportation, Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Department of Human Resources, and the Department of Juvenile Services.”
An NRA-sponsored motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction was filed on behalf of several state-level pro-gun organizations, demanding a halt to the “all hands” approach for processing 77R applications. The suit cited vulnerabilities in the State Police’s system for sharing the firearm purchaser information with other agencies, and noted the difference in screening procedures for the non-police personnel. Further, state law specifically requires State Police personnel to handle aspects of the 77R application process.
After the motion was filed, the state announced that the “all hands” approach was “terminated.” In addition, the state filed affidavits attesting that in the future only Department of Public Safety and Corrections personnel would be used for 77R processing, along with Maryland State Police employees, and that the Public Safety and Corrections staff will be relegated to data entry.
In this case, well-targeted litigation helped to ensure a measure of security for the sensitive information of Maryland’s gun purchasers. However, the Maryland regulated firearms application backlog is an important illustration of the dangers to individual rights and security posed by redundant state background check and registration systems that require disclosure of a gun purchaser’s personal information as a prerequisite for exercising a fundamental right.