With a sniper roaming the Washington suburbs, the House on Tuesday passed without dissent a bill authorizing $1.1 billion in federal funds to help states computerize criminal records so they can be used in background checks on gun buyers.
Lawmakers acknowledged they don't know if the bill might have prevented the sniper shootings over the past two weeks in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs of the nation's capital.
"We do know that 10,000 illegal buyers got a gun because of faulty records," said Republican Rep. Connie Morella, whose Maryland district was the site of half of the shootings. "I pray that this utterly depraved man is not number 10,001."
Background checks for prospective gun buyers have been required since 1994 under the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. More than 689,000 people have been denied a gun for failing the checks.
But faulty records allowed at least 9,976 prohibited buyers to buy a gun from December 1998 to June 2001, according to a report by Americans for Gun Safety.
The FBI's system is supposed to identify felons, drug addicts, domestic abusers, illegal immigrants, people who were involuntarily committed to a mental institution and others legally barred from having a gun. It relies on states and other federal agencies to provide criminal, mental health and other records, but many are incomplete or outdated.
"Background checks can only be as effective as the records that are available to be checked," said House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
The bill authorizes $1.1 billion for states and courts to update their records and submit them to the database. It also requires federal agencies like the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Department of Veterans Affairs to provide their records to the database to ensure that illegal aliens or the mentally ill don't get weapons.
Similar legislation is being blocked in the Senate even though it is supported by both gun control advocates and gun owner groups such as the National Rifle Association. "When I tried last Thursday night to clear it, we didn't get it done. But we'll look at that again," Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Tuesday.
Sensenbrenner also asked the General Accounting Office, Congress's watchdog arm, to investigate how Maryland spent $6.7 million it has received since 1995 from the federal government's National Instant Criminal History Improvement Program to improve its criminal history records.
Maryland's State Archives on March 12 told the federal government that it cannot participate in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System unless it is reimbursed. The state archives on Oct. 3 agreed to resume providing research assistance for the national database as long as it continues to be reimbursed, which left an almost six-month gap, Sensenbrenner said.
"This refusal by Maryland, the only state to do so, meant the gun background check system run by the FBI did not have the valuable information necessary to prevent criminals from obtaining guns, thereby putting public safety needlessly at risk," Sensenbrenner said.