Cumberland Times-News

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September 16, 2013

Attorney general OK with expedited gun check procedure

CUMBERLAND — The Maryland attorney general’s office believes a program to speed up the processing of firearm applications doesn’t violate gun owner’s privacy rights.

Representatives of the office were responding to concerns voiced by Delegate Kevin Kelly about the use of non-police personnel from other state agencies to process the applications. Kelly had been pressing Maryland State Police officials to speed processing of a serious backlog in gun applications.

“Some have questioned whether non-MSP employees may play any role in the firearm application process when the statute and regulations require the State Police to perform the review and investigatory functions required by law. Although I understand the concern, in my view the MSP does perform the review and investigatory functions under the arrangement discussed above; the MSP has simply borrowed employees from other units of the Executive Branch to enable it to effectively and efficiently perform the clerical work associated with carrying out its statutory duty,” the Sept. 16 letter from Adam D. Snyder, Chief Counsel for Opinions, Advice & Legislation, said.

It’s unclear what would happen if the state police could no longer use employees of other departments to speed the background checks.

Kelly was indignant at the way chosen to expedite the checks.

“As one of these applicants I find it offensive, reprehensible and hopefully illegal that Non-MSP personnel have access to the private information of Law Abiding firearms purchasers set forth on the MSP 77R forms. Over the weekend I have been inundated with emails from Law Abiding Maryland Gun Owners and by those who support the Second Amendment, all of who share my outrage that private/personal information contained in these MSP 77R forms is subject to examination by Maryland State employees individuals who are not trained nor assigned to the MSP Licensing Division,” Kelly wrote in a Sept. 8 letter to Attorney General Douglas Gansler.

The state police are using up to 200 employees from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the Department of Human Resources and the Department of Juvenile Services to expedite the applications. State law protects private data no matter who is entering it, Snyder said.

At one point “the volume of applications ... outstripped even the enhanced agency resources, with the result that a backlog of 39,950 unprocessed applications had accumulated,” Snyder wrote.

The state police supervise the loaned employees, according to the attorney general. The role of those employees is clerical only and they do not handle the background checks.

“When entering data into the MSP database, those employees function as the MSP’s agents for that task. I am not aware of any legal principle that would prevent one State agency from making its employees available to assist another State agency in this manner,” Snyder wrote.

Among other things, the attorney general’s letter makes it clear that civilian employees have always been employed in the process, and employees of other agencies are not prohibited from aiding the process.

“I am not aware of any legal principle that would prevent one State agency from making its employees available to assist another State agency in this manner,” wrote Snyder. The employees have been briefed on the importance of confidentiality.

“The MSP has taken steps to ensure that the confidentiality of applicants’ personal information is maintained throughout the data-entry process. The participating State employees were trained on the importance of treating the application information confidentially and are bound by the conditions of State service to do so,” Snyder wrote.

“I also do not believe that the use of non-MSP State employees to perform clerical data entry constitutes a breach of the firearm applicant’s privacy. The Maryland Public Information Act (“MPIA”) governs access to State records and protects against the public disclosure of certain privacy-related information in response to specific requests. ... The MSP is not, however, publicly disclosing the personal information (on application forms),” Snyder wote.

Snyder said that there were distinctions between clerical work and investigatory work, “to the extent that your concerns about the propriety of this arrangement are based on the assumption that the data entry function was, until now, performed by the sworn police officers, I can assure you that is not the case. Clerical staff customarily performs the non-investigatory data entry, and the law does not require that sworn officers be assigned to that task. In sum, I see no reasonable legal objection to the program as described,” Snyder wrote.

Kelly had requested a formal attorney general’s opinion, but the office decided to respond with a letter.

Contact Matthew Bieniek at mbieniek@times-news.com.

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