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Senate Committee Passes School Safety Bill Including Schumer Plan To
Tighten Background Checks For Gun Buyers

Tue, 08/07/2007

Require States To Submit Information To National Database; Would Require Mental Health Information Be Turned Over to the Feds and Shared Between State to Ensure Guns are Not Sold to Dangerous Individuals; Had This Practice Already Been In Place, the Tragic Shooting at Virginia Tech Might Have Been Prevented

August 2, 2007 -- Today, Senator Charles E. Schumer announced that a school safety legislative package including his plan to tighten background checks for gun purchasers made its first step towards becoming law. The School Safety and Law Enforcement Improvements Act, which was authored by Senator Patrick Leahy and includes Senator Schumer's language to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was passed unanimously today by a Senate Judiciary Committee vote.

The shooting of 32 people at Virginia Tech last spring, perpetrated by a gunman who had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital and deemed a "danger to himself and others" by a judge, exposed grave shortcomings in the system meant to prevent criminals and other dangerous individuals from obtaining firearms. The legislation would strengthen requirements for states to pass critical mental health information along to the federal government for inclusion in NICS, so that a pre-purchase background check would show a person falls into the category of those prohibited from owning firearms. Had Cho Seung-Huiís mental condition shown up in his federal background check, he may never have been allowed to buy a handgun. Similar legislation, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (NY-4) recently passed the House of Representatives.

"Our first line of defense against another national tragedy is ensuring that guns stay out of the hands of violent people," Schumer said. "Many of the rules to do exactly that are already on the books, and the NICS system is key to ensuring that gun buyers know when not to sell a gun to a particular individual. But unless states are diligent in collecting, updating and submitting information to the national database, the system cannot work. I have been working on this issue for many years, and I am happy to see that Chairman Leahy has made it such a priority for the Committee."

When a person attempts to purchase a firearm, a background check is run through the National Instant Criminal Background, or "NICS" system. A NICS call center representative (or automated system) runs a check of several databases to see if the purchaser has a record prohibiting him or her from buying a gun under federal law. The majority of potential gun buyers are either approved or denied almost instantly. But if the computer search is unable to reach a final determination, a NICS representative will conduct a manual search for missing information that will allow NICS to make a final determination. In such a situation, the NICS representative must attempt to get the missing information by calling state and local courthouses, judges, clerks, or even law enforcement officers to get the information. If the NICS representative cannot get an answer in three days, the gun dealer automatically has permission to sell the gun to the buyer.

A criminal background check is only as good as the records that the states provide to the system. Millions of criminal and mental health records are inaccessible to the NICS system, mostly because state and local governments lack the money to submit the records. Furthermore, the process is often spotty, as states are not required by law to turn over all pertinent information that could potentially prohibit a person from buying a gun. As a result, many people who simply should not have guns are allowed to purchase them.

In the case of the Virginia Tech shooting, Cho allegedly acquired the two firearms in two separate transactions, both within weeks of the massacre. For both purchases, he was required to show the store clerk a driver's license and complete paperwork before passing the background check. Because no mental health information was in the system, he was able to pass his background checks.

However, two years before buying the guns, Cho was accused of stalking two of his fellow female students at Virginia Tech, and had been civilly committed. At the time, a judge found that Cho "presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness." He was then briefly admitted to a psychiatric facility for an overnight stay as an outpatient. This information was never conveyed to the federal government and never appeared on Choís background checks.

This bill would provide $400 million to state agencies and $125 million for state courts to upgrade their computers to ensure speedy delivery of information. Using a carrot-and-stick approach, states who poorly comply with the law will risk losing 5% of their funding under the Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. Significant incentives will be provided to states that have good reporting records. States who comply would be required to share information - such as an individualís relevant, disqualifying history of mental illness - with the FBI. The law would also requires federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security to make their records available to the NICS database to ensure timely and thorough background checks of those who purchase guns. The bill also requires states to set up procedures whereby a person who previously had been deemed mentally ill can petition to regain the right to own a firearm. Similar legislation, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (NY-4) is currently pending in the House of Representatives.

Federal law clearly prohibits the purchase of firearms by those who have been "adjudicated mentally defective" or "committed to a mental health institution." Also forbidden from possessing guns are people who:

* Are subject to a court order restraining them from domestic violence;
* Are under indictment for, or have been convicted of a felony;
* Are fugitives from justice;
* Are users or addicts of controlled substances;
* Have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor
* Have been dishonorably discharged from the military;
* Are illegal aliens; or
* Have renounced U.S. Citizenship.

"It is unfortunate that it would take a tragedy of the magnitude of Virginia Tech - the worst shooting massacre in U.S. history - for us to finally address this problem and counter it with sensible, responsible legislation," Schumer said. "The bottom line is that someone who has been adjudicated a danger to himself and to others has no business owning a firearm, period."
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