By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Senior Democrats have reached agreement with the National Rifle Association on what could be the first federal gun-control legislation since 1994, a measure to significantly strengthen the national system that checks the backgrounds of gun buyers.
The sensitive talks began in April, days after a mentally ill gunman killed 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech University. The shooter, Seung Hui Cho, had been judicially ordered to submit to a psychiatric evaluation, which should have disqualified him from buying handguns. But the state of Virginia never forwarded that information to the federal National Instant Check System (NICS), and the massacre exposed a loophole in the 13-year-old background-check program.
Under the agreement, participating states would be given monetary enticements for the first time to keep the federal background database up to date, as well as penalties for failing to comply.
To sign on to the deal, the powerful gun lobby won significant concessions from Democratic negotiators in weeks of painstaking talks. Individuals with minor infractions in their pasts could petition their states to have their names removed from the federal database, and about 83,000 military veterans, put into the system by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2000 for alleged mental health reasons, would have a chance to clean their records. The federal government would be permanently barred from charging gun buyers or sellers a fee for their background checks. In addition, faulty records such as duplicative names or expunged convictions would have to be scrubbed from the database.
"The NRA worked diligently with the concerns of gun owners and law enforcement in mind to make a . . . system that's better for gun owners and better for law enforcement," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), a former NRA board member, who led the talks.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) had been pushing similar legislation for years. But her reputation as a staunch opponent of the gun lobby -- she came to Congress to promote gun control after her husband was gunned down in a massacre on the Long Island Rail Road -- ruined any chance of a deal with the NRA.
By contrast, this agreement is a marriage of convenience for both sides. Democratic leaders are eager to show that they can respond legislatively to the Virginia Tech rampage, a feat that GOP leaders would not muster after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. Meanwhile, the NRA was motivated to show it would not stand in the way of a bill that would not harm law-abiding gun buyers. Even so, it drove a hard bargain to quiet its smaller but more vociferous rival, Gun Owners of America, which has long opposed McCarthy's background-check bill.
Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, said yesterday that the organization will strongly support the legislation as written. "We've been on record for decades for keeping firearms out of the hands of the mentally adjudicated. It's not only good policy, it's good politics," he said. But Cox warned that if the legislation becomes a "gun-control wish list" as it moves through Congress, the NRA will withdraw its support and work against the bill.
The NRA reacted furiously to the last major federal gun-control legislation, a 1994 ban on assault weapons, and that reaction helped sweep Democrats from control of Congress later that year. Vice President Al Gore's embrace of gun-control proposals helped secure his defeat in the presidential election of 2000, and Democratic leaders have been leery of touching the issue ever since.
This time, Democratic leaders dispatched Dingell and Rep. Rick Boucher (Va.), a pro-gun Democrat who represents Virginia Tech's home town, Blacksburg, to reach a deal. But talks dragged on over issues of constitutionality and questions over how to institute a means to clear names from the system.
On Friday afternoon, the NRA finally signed off.
"I've been involved with this legislative effort for years, working to address the shortcomings of NICS. I'm confident that this legislation will do it," Dingell said. "No law will prevent evildoers from doing evil acts, but this law will help ensure that those deemed dangerous by the courts will not be able to purchase a weapon."
Under the bill, states voluntarily participating in the system would have to file an audit with the U.S. attorney general of all the criminal cases, mental health adjudications and court-ordered drug treatments that had not been filed with the instant-check system. The federal government would then pick up 90 percent of the cost for the states to get up to date within 180 days of the audit.
Once the attorney general determines that a state has cleared its backlog, the federal government would begin financing all the costs of keeping the system current. If a state's compliance lapses, the attorney general would be authorized to cut federal law enforcement grants, with more draconian aid cuts mandated if noncompliance stretches longer than a year.
The bill would authorize payments to the states of $250 million a year between 2008 and 2010, when the program would have to be reassessed and reauthorized by Congress.
Only one state, Vermont, does not participate in the instant-check system, and even with the threatened aid cuts, negotiators expressed confidence that no other state would drop out, given the funding that would be available and the stigma that would be attached to withdrawal.
"I can't imagine a scenario where a state would drop out, and say what? 'If you're adjudicated schizophrenic, you can buy your guns here'?" asked a Democratic aide involved directly in the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not cleared to speak to reporters.