Virginia Tech Families Call On Congress To Fix Gun Background Checks

Virginia Tech Families Call On Congress To Fix Gun Background Checks

WASHINGTON -- In the wake of Saturday's Tucson shooting, in which a gunman killed six people and injured 13 others, family members of victims in the mass 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech are urging Congress to fix a gun background-check system that often allows people to buy firearms even after they have been convicted of crimes or judged mentally ill.

Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged shooter of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and others, fits the profile to be denied gun ownership under federal law. He has a documented history of drug abuse, including a 2007 arrest on drug charges. But like Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, Loughner was able to slip through the cracks and purchase a gun because of missing records in the background-check system that federally-licensed gun dealers consult before selling a weapon.

Congress has attempted to solve this problem before, but with unsatisfying results. In the months following the Virginia Tech shooting, lawmakers passed a bill meant to increase the number of records entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. But three years later, hundreds of thousands of records are still missing, allowing many to pass background checks they might otherwise fail.

Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily survived being shot twice in the head at Virgina Tech, said the weekend's events should renew focus on the need for Congress to implement stronger gun control. Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, purchased a gun over the counter despite being found a danger to himself in court in 2005, which should have disqualified him from such a purchase.

"What is frightening to us is that over and over, you have these mass tragedies because our elected officials are failing to act to fix the broken system," Haas told HuffPost. "When mentally ill people get their hands on a gun, something is wrong with the system."

Since 2007, Congress has provided only a small amount of the funds it promised states to improve documentation in the background-check system. Of the $375 million authorized in the bill, only $20 million has been allocated so far.

"They made a promise the the Virginia Tech family members and they haven't followed through with it," said Arkadi Gerney, a special advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who works with the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition.

Due to the difficulty and cost of rounding up the proper documentation, most states have been slow to enter mental health and other records into the system. Ten states have entered no mental health records, and 18 others have entered less than 100. That means thousands of records are lost from the background-check system: For comparison, Virginia has entered about 139,000 mental health records in the past three years.

In Arizona, the situation is improving, but slowly. The state had entered no mental health records into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System as of the end of 2006, but now has submitted 5,036.

Still, better funding would not fully resolve the issue of guns being sold to criminals and the mentally ill, due to a loophole that allows private gun vendors, including gun shows, to sell without background checks. "You know criminals go to these gun shows," Haas said.

Haas said she was disappointed that many legislators have focused on the need to improve safety for public officials after the Tucson shooting rather than implementing more gun controls.

"It's offensive to me that some congresspeople are worrying about how to protect themselves, when really it should be about who's going to protect the citizenry," Haas said. "Who is going to protect me and my daughter? Who is going to protect Christina Taylor Green?"

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