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Background Checks Still Not Strong Enough

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy in April 2007, nearly all elected officials, as well as the public, agreed about one important policy change: the Federal Brady background check system needed strengthening to make it harder for dangerous people like the Virginia Tech killer to purchase dangerous weapons.

The problem was, and is, simple and startling: the total number of disqualifying mental illness records in the system is estimated to be less than 20 percent of the estimated 2.6 million such records that ought to be in the system, according to analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). In addition, as of early last year it was estimated that approximately 25 percent of felony conviction records nationwide were not in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

To give states stronger incentives to submit records of prohibited purchasers to the FBI, which takes the lead role in processing background checks, Congress passed and President Bush signed the NICS Improvement Act with nearly unanimous bipartisan support.

Since the bill was signed into law a year ago today, there has been steady progress by some states in submitting more records to NICS, but many states are still failing to submit their records.  And despite the law’s authorization of funding to help the states cope with the costs of providing the records, the 110th Congress appropriated no funds for the legislation last year.

“We went into this effort to ensure that dangerous people don’t pass their Brady background check because of incomplete information from the states,” said Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Campaign.  “But not enough has been done yet at the federal or state level to make sure the job gets done.”

The Virginia Tech killer was able to buy a gun because the court order finding him to be dangerously mentally ill had not been submitted to the background check system.  

Since the April 16, 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, some states have taken action to improve their reporting of disqualifying mental illness records while other states have done nothing or very little.  According to the latest FBI statistics, through October 31, 2008, thirteen states have still failed to provide any disqualifying mental illness records to NICS while another sixteen states report very few records (less than 10), with some states like Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Vermont and Mississippi submitting only one disqualifying mental illness record to NICS.

Since the Virginia Tech shootings seven states - Arkansas, Illinois,  Maine, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and West Virginia - have passed legislation to improve their reporting, while another six states are already considering legislation in 2009.  Two Governors - Virginia’s Tim Kaine and Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley - have signed executive orders improving the states’ performance on record submission.  Furthermore, another six states significantly improved their reporting of disqualifying mental illness records to NICS from 2007 to 2008 without legislative action.  Those states are Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Ohio.   

For those states yet to submit any records, or doing a substandard job of submitting, the funding authorized by the NICS Improvement Act could provide financial help in getting more disqualifying mental illness records into NICS.  “We don’t want another person with a disqualifying mental illness slipping through the cracks and being able to pass a background check and buy a firearm,” Helmke said.  “We need to do all we can to prevent another Virginia Tech.”

As the nation’s largest, non-partisan, grassroots organization leading the fight to prevent gun violence, the Brady Campaign, with its dedicated network of Million Mom March Chapters, works to enact and enforce sensible gun laws, regulations and public policies. The Brady Campaign is devoted to creating an America free from gun violence, where all Americans are safe at home, at school, at work, and in our communities.



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