WASHINGTON – In what could amount to the first — and fastest — bipartisan compromise of the 110th Congress to date, the House passed a bill Wednesday engendering one of the most politically-charged issues today: gun control.
The bill authored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-NY — hardly a favorite of the gun rights movement — was co-sponsored by a handful of Republicans and bolstered by the National Rifle Association. It aims to strengthen the existing federal background check system to ensure that people who aren't supposed to be buying firearms get turned away at the point of the sale.
The bill passed by voice vote, two days after it was introduced. New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer is looking to introduce his own version of the McCarthy bill on the Senate side.
"Each year, tens of thousands of barred individuals slip through the cracks of the system and gain access to firearms," McCarthy said in a statement. "Simply put, the NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) must be updated on both the state and federal level."
Spurred by the April shooting deaths of 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech University by Seung-Hui Cho, a man who was sold the firearms used in the murder spree despite court-mandated mental treatment in 2005, the bill clarifies, tightens and funds current laws regarding state participation in the NICS database.
The database created during the Clinton administration is fed by the states and is supposed to include the names of all persons legally prohibited from buying firearms throughout the country. But the big hole in the current NICS system is that only 22 states actually report mental health adjudications to the FBI for the database. States cite both a lack of resources but also a hesitation to stigmatize those with mental illness and concerns over privacy.
Cho's case is apparently one of those that fell through the cracks. In 2005, he was apprehended by police and given a mental health evaluation after allegedly stalking women over the Internet. The court remanded him to outpatient counseling, which, according to reports, he never attended. Virginia state officials say they were not sure whether they should have put him into that database.
Currently, anyone deemed by a court to be so mentally unfit as to be a danger to oneself or others, is banned from purchasing firearms. Also prohibited from purchasing guns are individuals convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence or a crime punishable by one year or more in prison, individuals facing a restraining order and illegal aliens.
But those responsible for entering the data on mentally unfit complain that the law is too vague to be effective, and that shortcoming increases the likelihood that someone who shouldn’t own a gun will be sold one while those with mental health issues that aren’t a danger will be unfairly denied access.
On Wednesday, President Bush received a report from a panel he appointed to investigate the Virginia Tech shootings. The panel concluded that doctors, schools and police often do not share information about potentially dangerous students because they are confused by complicated and overlapping privacy laws.
"We need to do a much better job educating educators, mental health community and law enforcement that they can, in fact, share information when a person's safety or a community's safety is in fact potentially endangered," said Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, a member of the commission.
The panel laid out several recommendations on how the federal government can work with states and schools to streamline the process of inputting data into gun registries, particularly when it comes to people with criminal records and histories of mental illness.
Leavitt added that the Bush administration is pleased with the House-passed bill.
"The administration views it as a very important set of goals, and we're broadly supportive of it. I suspect we'll learn more about the legislation as it unfolds, but see it as a positive thing and consistent with the findings that we had in examining these broad issues," he said.
Meanwhile, the two sides of the gun rights fight — typically, those who seek to tighten access to gun control and those defending the Second Amendment's right to bear arms – agree that they don't want criminals and mentally ill and dangerous individuals to obtain guns.
"This shows that even on the most divisive of issues, people of good faith and good intentions can work together to achieve the common good," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who co-sponsored the legislation. Republican co-sponsors included Reps. Chris Shays of Connecticut, Lamar Smith of Texas and Michael Castle of Delaware.
The McCarthy legislation clarifies the conditions under which a person deemed mentally unfit by the courts can fall under the prohibition, and allows those who lost their right to buy a gun because of mental illness to appeal and have the restrictions dropped if they can prove they are no longer dangers to society.
On top that, veterans who have been assigned a mental health disability with the Veterans Administration have been lumped into the database whether they are a danger or not. The new legislation automatically restores the right to purchase guns for veterans who were wrongly entered into the database through the VA disability program and prevents more from going into the database unnecessarily.
"This bill would deal with that in terms of clearing those records," said NRA President William LaPierre. LaPierre contends that 80,000 to 90,000 veterans have been put into the system since the NICS first became operational. It is unclear how many of those veterans are undeservedly in the database.
The legislation also makes available $250 million to improve state NICS systems, as well as set up panels to hear appeals. It would add an oversight function to ensure the money is being spent on NICS and that the states are complying. If they do not, the legislation allows the federal government to hold back 3 percent of states' crime prevention appropriations, starting three years from the date the bill is signed by the president.
Where Opposing Sides Collide
David Shern, president of Mental Health America, said some "important improvements" have been made to McCarthy's original bill, which first failed in 2002 in part because of opposition from the mental health community. Shern said opposition stemmed from the fact the background check system often snags the wrong people and does not guarantee privacy since no one knows what other agency or outside institution might have access to individuals' mental health status.
"It's the ignorance and stigmatizing effect," said Shern, whose group was part of a coalition that lobbied in recent mails Capitol Hill to improve McCarthy's bill. Reading the language of the new bill, Shern said he is heartened that it will give some people a chance to appeal their circumstances. "We're ... gratified that it moved in the direction it did."
The bill approved Wednesday is the first big piece of gun legislation to get this kind of traction from both the gun control and Second Amendment factions since a federal background check for the purchase of guns was supported by both sides as part of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993. Since then, issues like clamping down on gun show purchases or suing gun manufacturers for deadly gun violence has fiercely separated the two sides, with divisions falling mostly along party lines.
LaPierre, who said the NRA has always supported fair background checks that do not impinge on lawful gun ownership, told FOXNews.com he is hopeful that gun owners will find this new development more palatable than previous attempts. He said his group worked mainly with Dingell, a supporter of its cause.
McCarthy, who came to Congress pledging to reform gun laws after her husband was fatally shot in the infamous 1993 Long Island Railroad massacre, has often been the group's nemesis.
"Our members don't want mental defectives and criminals buying handguns," said LaPierre. "We supported the background checks and support the money to make it work effectively."
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told FOXNews.com that his group is happy the bill passed and has been "very supportive" of the legislation throughout the process. The group is less enthusiastic about the provisions allowing persons with mental health prohibitions to appeal their status.
"You want to make sure it works," he said. However, "We argued for a long time that background checks make a difference but they only make a difference if they have good information in (the database)." This legislation helps that, he said.
Gun rights activists are watching closely, too. Part of an extensive online network, a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from this crowd could make an impact on how smoothly the bill passes through Congress.
"Certainly we all want to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn't have them and that is the aim of this bill, which doesn't actually change federal laws as much as it provides incentives — and funding — for states to provide the instant background check system with up-to-date information," said Jeff Soyer, who runs the popular www.Alphecca.com Web log.
"My only concern — since this will no doubt be an easy bill for all members of Congress to support — is that anti-firearms advocates in (the Senate) might try to sneak in additional gun control measures as amendments," he said.
LaPierre said the NRA is watching for the same thing. "If they Christmas Tree it, if they were to turn it into a gun control wish list, we would certainly withdraw our support from the bill."