By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007
Since the Virginia Tech shootings last spring, the FBI has more than doubled the number of people nationwide who are prohibited from buying guns because of mental health problems, the Justice Department said yesterday.
Justice officials said the FBI's "Mental Defective File" has ballooned from 175,000 names in June to nearly 400,000, primarily because of additions from California. The names are listed in a subset of a database that gun dealers are supposed to check before completing sales.
The surge in names underscores the size of the gap in FBI records that allowed Seung Hui Cho to purchase the handguns he used in April to kill 32 people and himself at the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg.
A Virginia state court found Cho to be dangerously mentally ill in 2005 and ordered him to receive outpatient treatment. But because Cho was not ordered into hospital treatment, the court's order was never provided to the FBI and incorporated in its database. Two gun dealers checked the list before selling Cho the 9mm Glock 19 and the Walther .22-caliber pistol he used in the shootings.
For nearly four decades, federal law has prohibited gun sales to people judged to be "mentally defective," but enforcement has been haphazard. A 1995 Supreme Court ruling barred the federal government from forcing states to provide the data, and 18 states -- including Delaware and West Virginia -- provide no mental health-related information to the FBI at all. Both Virginia and Maryland do provide the data.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a group favoring tighter firearms controls, said the most optimistic estimates suggest that even the FBI's expanded list is missing 4 of 5 Americans who have been ruled mentally dangerous to themselves or others.
"If people realized how weak our system is in terms of background checks for people who are dangerously mentally ill, they would be shocked," Helmke said. "It's clear that there could be another Virginia Tech killer buying a gun today, and there's nothing that can be done about it."
The vast majority of the individuals who were added to the FBI's list were identified by California, which provided more than 200,000 names in October, the Justice Department said. Ohio provided more than 7,000 new names, and the number of states reporting mental health data to the FBI this year grew from 23 to 32, officials said.
"Instant background checks are essential to keeping guns out of the wrong hands, while still protecting the privacy of our citizens," Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said in a speech announcing the numbers in Park City, Utah. "But as we learned in the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the checks must be accurate and complete to be effective. We're making progress, and I hope that even more states will submit this information."
The Virginia Tech deaths, which resulted from the deadliest college campus shooting incident in U.S. history, have prompted a push by federal and state lawmakers to improve voluntary reporting by the states of those covered by the ban.
House Democrats reached an agreement earlier this year with the National Rifle Association on legislation meant to encourage states to submit timely background-check data to the FBI, by offering monetary awards and threatening penalties.
"Our position has always been that those who have been adjudicated as mentally defective or a danger to themselves or to others or suicidal should not have access to firearms" and should be added to the FBI's list, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said.
The measure passed easily in the House, but it has stalled in the Senate because of a hold by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). He has said he opposes the legislation because he thinks its implementation would cost too much and because it lacks a mechanism to challenge inclusion on the list. He was joined by some veterans' groups, which argued that former soldiers might be denied gun-owning rights without due process.
In Virginia, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) tightened state rules in May by ordering agencies to block gun sales to those involuntarily committed for inpatient or outpatient mental health treatment; previously only those committed to hospitals could not buy a gun. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) also issued a new gun-purchase regulation, which requires buyers to sign a waiver that releases mental health records to state police.
Mukasey highlighted the expanded FBI list during his first public speech after being narrowly confirmed by the Senate three weeks ago. He also told the National Association of Attorneys General that Washington will continue federal assistance for communities struggling against rising rates of violent crime.
Aides to the retired federal judge say his priority is to repair relations with Congress and to rebuild the department in the aftermath of controversies that beset his predecessor, Alberto R. Gonzales.
"I don't think you are going to see any big new initiatives, at least not right away," one Justice official said this week.