By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
RICHMOND, April 30 -- Gov. Timothy M. Kaine signed an executive order Monday closing a loophole that allowed Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui Cho to purchase firearms even though he had been declared dangerously mentally ill.
Appearing with Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), Kaine (D) said he instructed state agencies to block gun sales to people involuntarily committed to inpatient and outpatient mental health treatment.
Cho, who killed 32 people and himself, was able to purchase his Glock 19 and Walther .22-caliber guns even though a court had found him to be mentally ill and a threat to himself or others. Under federal law, Cho should have been barred from buying the weapons. But Virginia did not enter his name in the database because he had not been involuntarily committed to a hospital.
Cho had been ordered to seek outpatient treatment.
"We realized this is something we could fix right now, and we didn't want to wait," Kaine said.
The Virginia State Police and state Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services Department are directed "to consider any involuntary treatment order . . . whether inpatient or outpatient" when determining who should be barred from purchasing a gun.
After the state police receive the information from district courts, the agency will submit the names of those ordered for treatment to the FBI's central criminal records database.
Once someone's name is in the database, he is prohibited under state and federal law from purchasing a weapon until a court decides he is no longer a threat to others or himself. Licensed gun dealers nationwide are supposed to check the database before they complete a gun sale.
But Kaine and McDonnell said the order is limited because Kaine can do only so much without legislative approval. Because of that, some mentally ill people will still be able to purchase weapons.
The order is not retroactive -- the names of some people who received court-ordered outpatient treatment in the past might not be entered into the database. Kaine's order also does not affect people who seek treatment voluntarily. The General Assembly would have to change the law to restrict those people's access to firearms.
And even if someone's name appears in the database, there are ways for him to obtain a gun.
In Virginia, some unlicensed dealers or people making one-on-one sales, such as at a gun show, are not required to conduct a background check. The Republican-controlled legislature has repeatedly rejected efforts to close the gun show loophole.
Kaine and McDonnell said they will decide whether additional gun control measures are needed after an eight-member state panel completes its investigation of the April 16 shootings. The panel, headed by retired state police superintendent W. Gerald Massengill, is planning to hold its first meeting next week.
Officials with the National Rifle Association, which holds considerable sway in state politics, have said they support Kaine's effort to deal with the loophole. But other gun rights advocates say they are wary of additional restrictions.
"Cho would have gotten a gun one way or another. The question should be what are we going to do to allow people to better protect themselves?" said Mike McHugh, president of the Virginia Gun Owners Coalition.
Despite the Virginia Tech shootings and the subsequent nationwide scrutiny of the state's gun laws, McDonnell said Virginia is a leader in efforts to restrict the sale of firearms to the mentally ill. Virginia is one of 22 states that report mental health records to the FBI's national instant background check system. Since it started in 2003, Virginia has reported more than 80,000 records, more than any state.
Even so, the system failed to catch Cho when he purchased his weapons this year.
In 2005, the General Assembly changed the criteria under which state officials had to report a patient to the central criminal records database.
Under the old law, a person was to be reported to the database if he had been declared mentally ill and dangerous and had been "committed to a hospital." Starting in October 2005, the word "hospital" was replaced with "facility."
Cho was declared mentally ill in December 2005 after being evaluated at New River Valley Community Services in Blacksburg, leading some to argue that he should have been covered under the law even if he received outpatient services.
But when he filled out his application to purchase his weapons, Cho checked that he had never been ordered to seek mental counseling.
Kaine said Thursday that Cho was not entered into the database because there were "different interpretations" about what "facility" meant.
"Some courts had been reporting involuntary commitments to outpatient facilities, and some had not," Kaine said. The governor later added, "In the future, people who lie on forms will be caught."