One question many people are asking after the shootings at Virginia Tech is how someone so deranged could have legally purchased firearms.
The answer is twofold: Although the gunman, Seung-hui Cho, had been accused of harassing women, he had not been convicted of a crime. And although he was considered mentally ill, he had not been committed to a mental institution or declared mentally incapacitated.
In other words, his behavior before the shootings did not raise loud enough alarms with either law enforcement or the mental health system, the two institutions that might have kept him from buying weapons.
In Virginia, a person can be denied the right to purchase a firearm if he or she has been convicted of a felony, judged mentally incapacitated or hospitalized involuntarily for mental illness.
In Cho’s case, his criminal record is believed to have been clean. Although he was taken into custody by campus police in December 2005 in part on suspicion of harassing two female classmates, neither woman pressed charges.
Cho’s mental health history is murkier. At the same time that he was accused of harassment, an acquaintance alerted authorities that Cho was suicidal. Campus police brought him to a mental health clinic in Blacksburg for evaluation, and on the basis of a preliminary screening he was involuntarily held overnight at a mental health facility in Christiansburg.
Gun control advocates argue that his temporary detention under a legal order meant that he had been judged mentally incapacitated and should have been refused the right to buy guns.
“We believe there is clear evidence that since a Virginia judicial officer found that [Cho] presented ‘an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness’ that he ... should have failed his background checks,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
But Virginia officials argue that they followed the law to the letter. State and federal law enforcement authorities confirmed Thursday that they had no record in their respective criminal background check systems to indicate that Cho had been involuntarily committed, or that he had been declared mentally incapacitated by a judge.
Lt. W.J. Reed Jr., assistant division commander of Virginia’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, said he could not comment on the specifics of the Cho case.
But he said that if a judge had committed Cho involuntarily, or declared him mentally incapacitated, the clerk of the court would have been legally required to send the order to the State Police for incorporation into the Virginia Criminal Information Network.
Donna K. Tate, manager of the State Police office that reviews gun purchase applications, said there was nothing in the database to block the sale of a weapon to Cho.
Similarly, federal officials said they had no reports of crimes or mental illness in their system that would have barred Cho from buying guns.
About 35 states rely solely on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, the federal background check system. The rest, including Virginia, also check their own system because they have more stringent controls on the purchase of guns than the federal government, said Stephen G. Fischer Jr., the FBI spokesman for the Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Clarksburg, W.V.
The question then becomes whether mental health officials and local court officers failed to properly notify state and federal authorities of Cho’s mental health issues.
According to court records, Cho was declared mentally ill by the intake officer who evaluated him on Dec. 13, 2005, at New River Valley Community Services, a public provider of mental health services.
On the basis of that evaluation, a court magistrate issued a “temporary detention order” and Cho spent the night at Carilion Saint Albans Behavioral Health Center in Christiansburg.
The next day Cho was evaluated more fully by a psychiatrist, and met with a special justice. According to court records, the psychiatrist also declared the future gunman mentally ill but determined that Cho “did not present an imminent threat” to himself and others, and did not require hospitalization.
On that basis, the justice issued a certificate saying that Cho “presents an imminent danger to himself” but ordered him to receive outpatient treatment instead of hospitalization.
A temporary detention alone does not qualify as an “involuntary hospitalization,” state officials said.
Dr. James Reinhard, Virginia commissioner for mental health, said that a temporary detention order was meant primarily to permit a patient to be evaluated and should not be considered a final determination of a person’s mental state.
As for determining that a person is “mentally incapacitated,” Virginia law sets a high bar: that a person cannot meet his own basic needs without the help of a guardian. It does not appear that officials ever considered such a declaration for Cho.
“A finding that the individual displays poor judgment alone shall not be considered sufficient evidence that the individual is an incapacitated person within the meaning of this definition,” the law states.
There is nothing in the court record to explain why the examining psychiatrist decided that outpatient treatment would be adequate to treat Cho. Reinhard said that was not unusual. Some suicidal patients are more chronic than acute, and violent tendencies can be hard to discern.
“Behaviors like this can be masked and difficult to pick up. Clinicians don’t have a good record of predicting violence,” Reinhard said. “Especially if it’s not a psychotic illness, it can go undetected for long periods of time.”
The diagnosis the examining physician made is not clear. Officials have not released Cho’s records, citing privacy laws. The intake officer, the special justice and the lawyer who represented Cho during his hearing did not return calls Thursday.
Reynolds reported from Blacksburg and Meyer from Washington. Times staff writer Richard Fausset in Blacksburg contributed to this report.