Congress Passes Bill to Stop Mentally Ill From Getting Guns

By Elizabeth Williamson and Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 20, 2007

Prompted by the Virginia Tech University shootings, Congress yesterday approved legislation that would help states more quickly and accurately identify potential firearms buyers with mental health problems that disqualify them from gun ownership under federal law.

The deaths of 32 people in a shooting rampage by a mentally ill student on the Virginia Tech campus spurred Congress to address long-standing gaps in state records reporting that allowed the killer to purchase two guns.

The resulting bill -- based on legislation that had languished for years -- drew overwhelming bipartisan support, and the backing of both the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the National Rifle Association. Its Democratic sponsors worked for months to bring it to a vote, after Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) placed a hold on it.

"We can never know if we could have prevented the shootings" at Virginia Tech, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who sponsored the Senate version of the bill. Its House sponsor was Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.).

"It is a shame that we're again called to act on this five-year-old legislation in the face of tragedy, but now it is Congress's moment to take a huge step toward fixing a broken system," Schumer said.

Schumer and McCarthy introduced a similar bill in 2002, after a mentally ill gunman killed a priest and a parishioner at a church in New York.

Yesterday, after a compromise prompted Coburn to lift his hold, the Senate and the House passed the bill in quick succession. It is headed to President Bush for his signature.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Coburn called the bill "a balance . . . for protection. But it's also a balance to preserve rights."

The bill more clearly defines which mental health records must be reported by states and federal agencies to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The NICS is used by gun dealers to determine whether potential firearms buyers are legally qualified to buy a gun.

States and state courts would receive as much as $375 million each year for five years to streamline and improve the processing of mental health information used to flag people ineligible to own a gun. States that fail to comply with the requirements could lose federal crime-fighting funds, while states with good reporting records could qualify for financial incentives.

The bill would also require states to share disqualifying mental health information with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to make its records available to the NICS.

As part of a deal forged with the powerful gun lobby, the bill provides money to encourage states to allow thousands of people with allegations of mental illness on their records to petition for the restoration of their gun-ownership rights. The total includes more than 80,000 veterans.

The NRA supports the bill, saying it contains no new restrictions on gun ownership, only measures to improve compliance with restrictions that exist.

The law "is just so right for the country," said Joe Samaha, whose 18-year-old daughter, Reema, was killed in the Virginia Tech massacre April 16. "We're not saying that no one should own a gun. But if you've been adjudicated mentally ill, you should not. And this finally gives states the incentive to put people like that in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System data base."

Seung Hui Cho, the 23-year-old student who bought two semiautomatic handguns and killed 32 people in a 10-minute shooting rampage, would have been barred from buying a gun by federal law, which prohibits those judged to be "mentally defective" and a danger to themselves or others from buying firearms.

But gaps in Virginia's reporting system allowed his name to come up clear, even though a judge in 2005 had deemed him a danger to himself and ordered him to receive outpatient psychiatric care.

Giving states incentives to report all disqualifying mental health information was a key recommendation of the panel appointed by Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) to investigate the shootings. "The point of sale has got to be given a lot of attention," said W. Gerald Massengill, retired superintendent of the Virginia State Police, who chaired the panel.

"The more information we have on individuals who are not eligible to purchase firearms that can be put into those data banks," the better the chances of keeping guns out of "the wrong hands," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company