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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 22, 2007

Schumer, McCarthy: Virginia Tech Massacre Exposes Gaping Hole In Background Checks For Gun Buyers; Effects NY Colleges As Well

Mental Health Information Not Required to be Turned to Over to the Feds and Shared Between States, Allows Dangerous Gun Sales to Slip Through Cracks

Schumer and McCarthy Announce Bicameral Legislation to Close Loophole in System - Might Well Have Prevented Virginia Killing

System in Place to Ensure Guns Don't Get into the Wrong Hands is Broken—Cho Seung-Hui Had Been Committe

This week's tragic shooting of 32 people was committed by a gunman who had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital and deemed a "danger to himself and others by a judge" but was still able to buy firearms, no questions asked. Cho Seung-Hui was allowed to buy two handguns because no information about his mental condition showed up in his federal background check. Today, Senator Charles E. Schumer and Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy announced plans for legislation that would strengthen requirements for states to get critical mental health information to the federal government, something that may well have prevented the Virginia killings.

"The tragic deaths of 32 innocents this week at Virginia Tech at the hands of someone who was so clearly disturbed, and yet had no problems purchasing not one, but two guns, defies reason," Schumer said. "It is long past overdue that we revamp our gun laws, and prevent dangerous people from slipping through the cracks in the system. I will fight tooth and nail as I have for the last 30 years to do so" "My heart goes out to the victims and their families." said McCarthy. "We have learned that this madman should not have been able to purchase a gun, yet still passed a background check. Congress has a responsibility to ensure the federal background check system is complete and current to prevent certain individuals from legally purchasing firearms. While maintaining NICS records ultimately is the responsibility of the states, state budgets are already overburdened. The NICS Improvement Act will give states the resources to eliminate the legal loopholes that allow prohibited individuals from legally purchasing firearms."

In the tragic Virginia Tech massacre, Cho used two weapons, a 9mm Glock 19 and a .22 caliber Walther pistol, both semi-automatics which allow the shooter to rapidly fire a shot with each pull of the trigger opposed to having to manually cock the weapon between shots. Both weapons were purchased in-state, with Cho using a credit card to purchase the Glock 19 and a box of 50 rounds of ammunition for $571.00 from the Roanoke Firearms store in Roanoke, Virginia, on March 13, 2007. After showing government ID and verifying his state residency, he passed the instant background check. Cho allegedly ordered the .22 caliber handgun over the internet, and picked it up on February 9, 2007, from JND Pawnbrokers in Blacksburg, Virginia, only a few miles from Virginia Tech's campus. Cho 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 was civilly committed. At the time, a court order 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 Cho's background checks.

Federal law clearly prohibits buying a firearm 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 honorably discharged from the military;
  • Are illegal aliens; and
  • Have renounced U.S. Citizenship.

    When someone tries to buy a gun, a background check is run through the National Instant Criminal Background, or "NICS" system. A NICS call center representative (or an automated system) runs a check of several databases to see if the purchaser has a record that prohibits him from buying a gun under federal law. Most potential gun buyers are either approved or denied almost instantly. But if the computer search can't reach a final determination, a NICS representative must conduct a manual search for missing information that will allow NICS to make a final determination. In this 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 can't get an answer back 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 not accessible to the NICS system, mostly because state and local governments lack the money to submit the records.". In addition, the process is often spotty - nothing necessarily requires states to turn over all information that could prohibit a person from getting a gun. So, as a result, many people who simply should not have guns are allowed to purchase them.

    In an effort to fix this problem, today Senator Schumer and Congresswoman McCarthy announced bicameral legislation, that would provide funding and huge incentives to states to help them automate their criminal history records and provide information to the FBI regarding any individual who is barred from having a gun.

    The legislation would do this by providing $250,000,000 to state agencies and $125,000,000 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 individual's relevant, disqualifying history of mental illness - with the FBI. The law also requires federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security to make their records available to the NICS database to endure timely and thorough background checks of those who purchase guns.

    "Our legislation, had it been in place last week, may well have stopped last week's unspeakable tragedy," Sen. Schumer said. "But we know that someone like Cho Seung-Hui should never have been allowed to buy a gun. Our legislation will take one step toward preventing more people from falling through the cracks, and will try to make sure that such a horrible thing doesn't happen in New York, or Virginia, or anywhere else ever again."

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