Bill Seeks to Strengthen Background Checks for Firearm Purchases


After student Seung-Hui Cho shot 33 people to death — including himself — at Virginia Tech in April, President Bush ordered a panel to study the rampage and to issue findings.

As a result of the findings, the U.S. House of Representatives voted last week to correct flaws in the federal background-check system that allowed Cho to purchase firearms in spite of documented mental health problems. Although a court had ordered Cho to be treated for serious mental illness, the student never received treatment and was allowed to buy the weapons used in the massacre.

A 1968 federal law established that persons with mental illness cannot purchase firearms but, citing medical data privacy laws, fewer than half of the states have been reporting that information to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. The proposed legislation would make such reporting mandatory for every state.

Minnesota is one of the 28 states not currently reporting medical or mental health data to the NICS.

The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., has garnered strong support, including the approval of the National Rifle Association, virtually guaranteeing future passage by the Senate. The NRA’s support is based on a provision of the bill to restore the firearm purchasing rights of veterans diagnosed with mental illness. The NRA estimates the number of such veterans at around 80,000.

But not all gun-rights advocates are on board with the McCarthy bill. “I’m sure that H.R. 2640 doesn’t effectively address what happens if, after all that, the person gets better — including veterans,” said Joel Rosenberg, author of “Everything You Need to Know About (Legally) Carrying a Handgun in Minnesota” and a member of Gun Owners of America. “What’s the actual process under H.R. 2640 for restoring of rights?”

Rosenberg presented a hypothetical case of a 5-year-old boy who is ordered by a court to take medication for behavioral disorders but subsequently improves and no longer requires treatment by age 21 — when he’s ready to purchase a firearm. “How does he get off the list?” Rosenberg wonders, reflecting the concerns of the GOA.

Even so, Rosenberg says, “I don’t have a problem with somebody who has been adjudicated as mentally defective — in an adversary proceeding, so that the person’s rights and interests are represented by a competent attorney — and likely to be dangerous to themselves or others as at least temporarily losing some rights, such as the right to manage their own financial affairs, or to keep and bear arms.”

Kate Havelin, who is active in the gun-violence prevention groups Million Mom March and Protect Minnesota, views the bill as addressing an important public safety issue. “I don’t see it as an either/or. I don’t see it as the rights of gun owners versus the rest of society. I think it’s about the rights of all of us. I really don’t think that allowing law enforcement to have information about a person who is ordered by a court to get mental health help is a Second Amendment issue. It’s a public safety issue.”

Citing suicide statistics that point to the prevalence of firearms in suicides, Havelin says, “If that young man hadn’t been able to get guns, he probably would be alive today. That’s a really important point.”

In addition to mandating that state and federal agencies transmit all relevant disqualifying records to the federal database, the bill also calls for $250 million each year over the next three years to help states comply. It also imposes financial penalties to states that fail to update their systems or provide information to the federal database and provides a mechanism whereby those individuals reported to the system may appeal..

The bill now heads to the Senate. If it passes the Senate, President Bush is expected to sign it into law because it’s based on his commission’s findings.