By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007
With the Virginia Tech shootings resurrecting calls for tighter gun controls, the National Rifle Association has begun negotiations with senior Democrats over legislation to bolster the national background-check system and potentially block gun purchases by the mentally ill.
Rep. John D. Dingell (Mich.), a gun-rights Democrat who once served on the NRA's board of directors, is leading talks with the powerful gun lobby in hopes of producing a deal by early next week, Democratic aides and lawmakers said.
Under the bill, states would be given money to help them supply the federal government with information on mental-illness adjudications and other run-ins with the law that are supposed to disqualify individuals from firearms purchases. For the first time, states would face penalties for not keeping the National Instant Criminal Background Check System current.
The legislation, drafted several years ago by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), has twice passed the House, only to die in the Senate. But Cho Seung Hui's rampage Monday has given it new life.
Since 1968, individuals deemed mentally ill by the legal system are not supposed to be able to buy guns. A court's ordering Cho into treatment in late 2005 should have been reported to the federal background check system, congressional aides said. Instead, his background check came up clean, and he legally bought the two handguns used to kill 32 students and teachers before he committed suicide.
"The states are not putting records into the system," McCarthy said yesterday.
The measure could be the first gun control law to pass Congress since enactment of the now-lapsed assault weapons ban 13 years ago. But, McCarthy said, the deaths at Virginia Tech are not enough to propel the bill to passage. That is why the NRA is being brought into the process.
Multiple gun control measures were introduced after the Columbine High School shootings eight years ago, but the NRA helped thwart them all, then helped defeat Vice President Al Gore's 2000 bid for the White House. With that in mind, Democratic leaders are anxious to bring the NRA aboard as they try to respond to this week's shootings.
The gun lobby stayed relatively neutral during past efforts to pass the measure, but this time Dingell is pushing for an endorsement, or even for the NRA to make it a "key vote" for its supporters.
McCarthy, whose husband was killed during a gunman's rampage on the Long Island Rail Road, admits her crusades for far more stringent gun control measures have made her toxic in gun circles.
So Dingell is handling negotiations with the NRA, said an aide participating in those talks. Dingell is also in talks with Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (Wis.), the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has asked Dingell to broker a deal by Tuesday. But the aide said Dingell and NRA negotiators are skeptical they can reach an accord that quickly.
"We'd rather get a good bill than a quick bill," he said.
But pitfalls remain. The NRA must balance its desire to respond to the worst mass shooting by a lone gunman in the nation's history with its competition with the more strident Gun Owners of America, which opposes any restrictions on gun purchases.
An NRA lobbyist said last night that the group would not comment on the effort.