Democrats' Bill Addresses Background Checks for Gun Buyers

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - Two congressional gun-control advocates plan to introduce a bill that would provide "huge incentives" for states to automate their criminal history records, so people who shouldn't have guns can't get them legally, they said.

Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, both New York Democrats, said their legislation would provide $250 million to state agencies and $125 million to state courts for computer upgrades that would "ensure speedy delivery of information" to the FBI.

States would be required to share information, including an individual's history of mental illness, with the FBI.

"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."

Two years before buying the guns and murdering 32 people at Virginia Tech, Cho was accused of stalking two female students and was "civilly committed," Schumer and McCarthy noted. After a court order found that Cho presented "an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness," he was 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," the lawmakers said

Federal law prohibits firearm purchases by those who have been "adjudicated mentally defective" or "committed to a mental health institution."

The Schumer-McCarthy bill also would require federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security to make their records available to the National Instant Criminal Background System (NICS).

Schumer and McCarthy favor a "carrot-and-stick approach." Their bill says states with poor compliance would risk losing 5 percent of their funding under the Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. But significant incentives would be provided to states that have good reporting records.

"Congress has a responsibility to ensure the federal background check system is complete and current to prevent certain individuals from legally purchasing firearms," McCarthy said.

"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," she added.

A criminal background check is only as good as the records that the states provide to the system, Schumer and McCarthy said in a news release. But 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, the lawmakers said.

They also said the current background check process is "spotty" -- that "nothing necessarily requires states to turn over all information that could prohibit a person from getting a gun."

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