Del Quentin Wilber February 5, 2001 Monday Final Edition Copyright 2001 The Baltimore Sun Company All Rights Reserved The Baltimore Sun February 5, 2001 Monday Final Edition
(BALTIMORE) -- The number of people trying to buy handguns illegally by lying on application forms has decreased significantly in recent months, state officials say.
Even as those numbers drop, the Maryland State Police and attorney general's office have teamed to prosecute those lying on applications about restraining orders, which are usually issued to shield women from abusive or threatening spouses.
"If someone makes a blatant misrepresentation, we're going to find out about it," Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said. "If you commit perjury, we're going to prosecute."
The drop in the number of people filling out applications falsely and the stepped-up prosecutions are occurring more than a year after a Laurel man who was named in a protective order was able to buy a handgun and killed his two young children. That incident prompted the state to focus on problems with the application process.
State police said the decrease is the result of a revised application form put into use in October. The form, state police said, cut the number of cases by nearly 100 last year - a 16 percent drop from 1999 - despite being in circulation for only three months.
The form spells out that Maryland law prohibits handguns being owned by people with court-issued protective orders against them or by those with convictions for violent crimes or convictions that carry a minimum two-year prison term.
"It makes it really clear," said Capt. Jack Simpson, commander of the firearms enforcement division. "If you have a protective order, don't sign this form."
Last year, state police denied 499 applications for lying on forms. In 1999, they denied 592. About 30,000 people applied each year.
The problems with the system came to light in September 1999, after Richard W. Spicknall II shot and killed his 3-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son on the Eastern Shore with a gun he obtained despite a protective order against him.
A clerk in the Howard County sheriff's office erroneously deleted the protective order against Spicknall, enabling him to clear a police background check and buy the gun he used to kill his children.
State police audits at the time showed that local officials often failed to correctly enter information concerning protective orders into a state database. More recent audits show that the "critical" error rate has decreased to less than 1 percent and is continuing to decline while state police audit the system every three months, said Col. David B. Mitchell, state police superintendent.
"The audit process has been helpful giving us more frequent feedback," Mitchell said. "Improvement has come as a result."
Mitchell said his agency is aggressively investigating cases involving lying on forms. State police charged about 110 people with lying on forms last year - 40 of whom had protective orders against them.
Conviction for lying on an application, considered perjury, carries a maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine and a 10-year prison sentence.
To help state police tackle the cases, the attorney general's office approached troopers in the summer about taking on the gun prosecutions, said Carolyn H. Henneman, chief of the attorney general's criminal division.
It was a natural fit, Henneman said. "We wanted cases, and they wanted prosecutors," she said.
Said Capt. Jack Simpson, commander of the state police firearms division: "These are the cases you have to jump on quickly."
Since Curran's office began the prosecutions in the fall, prosecutors have brought eight cases.