Thursday, April 19, 2007

Could Virginia Tech killer have been stopped from buying guns?

Sadly, the answer is apparently yes -- if our background-check system weren't being sabotaged.

I'm not a big gun-control advocate. I grew up shooting guns. Then I joined the Army, where I got to shoot really big guns: M16s, M60s, SAWs and, of course, the 105mm main gun of an M1 (that final detail dates me, because M1s have since been upgunned to 120mm). I have no problem with reasonable restrictions on firearms, but I don't think there should be hugely cumbersome barriers to gun ownership.

That said, sometimes gun nuts make me mad.

A judge's ruling on Cho Seung-Hui's mental health should have barred him from purchasing the handguns he used in the Virginia Tech massacre, according to federal regulations. But it was unclear Thursday whether anybody had an obligation to inform federal authorities about Cho's mental status because of loopholes in the law that governs background checks....

The language of the ruling by Special Justice Paul M. Barnett almost identically tracks federal regulations from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Those rules bar the sale of guns to individuals who have been "adjudicated mentally defective."

The definition outlined in the regulations is "a determination by a court ... or other lawful authority that a person as a result of marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness ... is a danger to himself or to others."

There's nothing in Virginia state law barring the mentally ill from buying guns, unless they're committed to a psych ward. But federal law is tougher.

About that loophole:

George Burke, a spokesman for Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York, said millions of criminal and mental-health records are not accessible to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, mostly because state and local governments lack the money to submit the records.

McCarthy has sponsored legislation since 2002 that would close loopholes in the national background check system for gun purchases.

Initially states were required to provide all relevant information to federal authorities when the instant background checks were enacted, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling relieved them of that obligation.

So it's not so much a loophole, as a lack of money. But there is nothing requiring states and localities to share information with the Feds, so without proper funding, many don't. Meaning the National Instant Criminal Background Check System has some big holes in its database.

McCarthy's efforts to change that have gone nowhere, thanks in part to opposition from groups like Gun Owners of America. Each time, her bill has passed the House but died in the Senate.

Notably, the NRA has not opposed the measures. That said, the NRA has not been entirely on the sidelines here. Besides fighting efforts to institute background checks at gun shows, consider the "Supreme Court ruling" referenced in the article.

That line is somewhat inaccurate. The 1997 case, Printz v. United States, involved temporary measures intended to facilitate background checks between the time the Brady Bill was passed (in 1993) and 1998, when the NICS database would be established. It was rendered moot when the NICS went online.

But the basic facts remain: The NRA funded the lawsuit, which opposed Brady Bill background checks. Their specific legal argument was essentially that it was an unfunded mandate on local police and sheriff departments, and they won on those grounds; but their purpose was to stop background checks. Since then, the NRA has fought aspects of NICS, notably the length of time that records can be retained after a purchase. It's down to 24 hours from the original 180 days. That means the FBI has just 24 hours after a purchase to find and fix a mistaken approval.

It's worth asking: If gun groups weren't so busy damaging the machinery of the background-check system, would 32 people be alive today? We're not talking gun bans -- we're talking about making sure we have a working system to keep guns out of the hands of people like Cho, on whom red flags have already been planted.

Gun Owners of America, in particular, should be ashamed of themselves.

Update: An article from CNN contradicts the premise of this thread (and the article it is based on), claiming that only involuntary committment to a mental ward would have put Cho into the NICS. One of them is wrong.

Update II: Using the NYT as a tiebreaker, the original story appears correct: he should not have been able to buy the gun, because while he was in accord with Virginia state law, he was ineligible under federal law.

The main problem, as noted, is reportage:

Currently, only 22 states submit any mental health records to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said in a statement on Thursday. Virginia is the leading state in reporting disqualifications based on mental health criteria for the federal check system, the statement said.

Virginia state law on mental health disqualifications to firearms purchases, however, is worded slightly differently from the federal statute. So the form that Virginia courts use to notify state police about a mental health disqualification addresses only the state criteria, which list two potential categories that would warrant notification to the state police: someone who was “involuntarily committed” or ruled mentally “incapacitated.”

No matter where you stand on gun control, that disconnect needs to change.

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