Virginia Shootings Prompt Calls for Inclusion of Mental Health Information in Gun Check System

June 1, 2007
Stephen Barlas

Volume 24, Issue 7

States will come under new pressure to provide mental health data to the FBI gun purchase check system if Congress passes a bill being touted as a response to the Virginia Tech catastrophe in which a student gunman with previous mental health problems shot and killed 32 people. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Act (HR 297) now seems destined to pass Congress this year. It would provide grants to states to help them provide a variety of data to the FBI’s NICS on whether a person has been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence or has been the subject of court orders, mental health adjudications, or commitments.

States will come under new pressure toprovide mental health data to the FBIgun purchase check system if Congresspasses a bill being touted as a responseto the Virginia Tech catastrophe inwhich a student gunman with previousmental health problems shot and killed32 people. The National Instant CriminalBackground Check System (NICS)Improvement Act (HR 297) now seemsdestined to pass Congress this year. Itwould provide grants to states to helpthem provide a variety of data to theFBI's NICS on whether a person hasbeen convicted of a misdemeanor crimeof domestic violence or has been thesubject of court orders, mental healthadjudications, or commitments.

Gun retailers check with NICS beforeselling a gun. In the case of the VirginiaTech shooter, 2 separate retailerssold him guns despite the fact that inDecember 2005, he was briefly detainedin a mental facility after policehad told him to stop bothering womenon campus. The next day, a specialjudge determined that he presented "animminent danger to himself as a resultof mental illness." But because he wasnever committed to a mental hospital,Virginia never entered the court orderinto the federal database.

That is the kind of instance Rep CarolynMcCarthy (D, NY), sponsor of theNICS Improvement Act, hopes to eliminate.Her bill would provide grants tostates so they can upgrade computersystems. Perhaps more important, itwould allow the US Department of Justiceto withhold up to 3% of a state'sshare of federal crime-fighting dollarsprovided under the Omnibus CrimeControl and Safe Streets Act of 1968 ifit failed to provide NICS with 60% of aspecified set of information 3 years afterthe bill became law, and 90% starting5 years after the bill passed.

Ron Honberg, director of policy andlegal affairs for the National Alliance onMental Illness, said his group has no officialposition on the McCarthy bill. Buthe explained that the 1968 law that establishedthe reporting categories isvague, and its criteria "have no relationshipto what our modern day understandingof mental illness is." He statedthat Congress should first clean up thereporting categories. Otherwise, headded, states might have to report to theFBI database the names of people whowere civilly committed many years agobut who have subsequently straightenedout their lives.

The McCarthy bill has been kickingaround Congress for years and evenpassed the House in 2002, but not theSenate. In May 2006, during hearings inthe House Judiciary Committee, McCarthy related an incident from 2002 inNew York in which an individual whoshould have been disqualified from buyingguns did buy one-because of thefailure of New York to send the relevantinformation to the FBI's gun checkdatabase-and murdered 2 people as aresult. She added at that time, "It is onlya matter of time before the system'sfailings provoke larger tragedies."