House Tempers Background Checks for Guns
Wednesday, June 13, 2007; 7:00 PM
WASHINGTON -- The House voted Wednesday to fix flaws in the national gun background check system that allowed the Virginia Tech shooter to buy guns despite his mental health problems.
The legislation, passed by voice vote, was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, boosting its chances of becoming the first major gun control law in more than a decade.
"As the Virginia Tech shooting reminded us, there is an urgent national need to improve the background check system" to keep guns out of the hands of those barred from buying them, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
The measure would require states to automate their lists of convicted criminals and the mentally ill who are prohibited under a 1968 law from buying firearms, and report those lists to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS.
Seung-Hui Cho, who in April killed 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech before taking his own life, had been ordered to undergo outpatient mental health treatment and should have been barred from buying the two guns he used in the rampage. But the state of Virginia never forwarded this information to the national background check system.
The House action came as a panel ordered by President Bush to investigate the Virginia Tech shootings issued its findings, including a recommendation that legal and financial barriers to NICS submissions be addressed.
Bush, in a statement, said the report made clear that better information sharing between federal and state authorities "is essential in helping to keep guns out of the wrong hands and to punish those who break the law." He said he was "closely following legislative efforts to strengthen the instant background check system."
The panel also urged federal agencies to expand programs to prevent school violence and said the Health and Human Services Department should focus on college students in its mental health public education campaign.
Asked why the commission did not make a deeper review of gun laws, White House press secretary Tony Snow said, "That really wasn't within the purview of what they decided that they're going to look at."
Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said the report disclosed "the deep complexities of the issues facing college campuses today," and said he believes it will help advance federal and state officials' scrutiny of issues related to society's safety vs. personal freedoms.
The House bill next moves to the Senate, where gun control advocate Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was talking to NRA ally Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and there was a "very strong" chance of passage. "When the NRA and I agree on legislation, you know that it's going to get through, become law and do some good," he said.
The legislation requires state and federal agencies to transmit all relevant disqualifying records to the NICS database. It also provides $250 million a year over the next three years to help states meet those goals and it imposes penalties _ including cuts in federal grants under an anti-crime law _ on states that fail to meet benchmarks for automating their systems and supplying information to the NICS.