ONE OF THE FEW gun control issues most Americans can agree on is that it is insanity to allow the mentally disturbed to bear arms. But that's just what happened in Virginia, where, despite a judge's 2005 finding that Seung-hui Cho posed an "imminent danger to self or others," Cho passed a gun background check and was permitted to purchase two firearms that he used to kill 32 people at Virginia Tech.
FOR THE RECORD:
Firearms: An April 23 editorial stated that the FBI rejected 0.5% of applicants to purchase firearms in 2004 for mental problems. The FBI rejected 1.4% of all applications to buy firearms; of these, 0.5% were rejected because of mental health concerns. —
Under federal law, the judge's warning should have been immediately reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, an FBI-run database that keeps track of felons, fugitives, people with domestic-violence convictions or restraining orders and those deemed by a court to be mentally ill. Whoever's on the list is prohibited from buying a gun.
In theory, Cho should have been rejected at the gun dealership. In fact, there are lapses in enforcement from state to state, effectively creating a huge loophole in the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. Some states refuse to send the NICS mental health data because of privacy concerns; others say they don't have the money to computerize criminal records; still others try to comply but have huge backlogs. (A few states, including California, have background checks more rigorous than the NICS.)
Gun control foes rightly note that most criminals don't buy their weapons legally. But Justice Department data also show that the NICS stops a lot of felons — but few people with mental illness. The FBI rejected only 0.5% of firearm purchasers in 2004 for mental problems. State and local agencies that do their own background checks — often with access to mental health records that don't make it to the NICS database — turned down would-be gun buyers on mental grounds more than five times as often.
The Justice Department has a long-standing program that gives funds to states to improve the quality, timeliness and privacy protections of the NICS database. But Congress has been slashing its funding. Last year, President Bush asked Congress for $39 million for the program and received just $10 million.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) has a bill pending to bump that total to $125 million a year. McCarthy, whose husband was killed and her son badly injured in a 1993 commuter train attack by a crazed gunman, experienced the NICS gap in 2002, when a mental patient shot and killed a priest and parishioner at a church in her district. The killer passed the gun background check because the NICS did not have his data on file.
McCarthy's bill has languished for five years, partly because of her approach to punishing states that don't comply. Those details can be worked out. Laws already exist to thwart the mentally disturbed from the gun market; it's up to Congress and the Justice Department to make sure they get enforced.