WASHINGTON – The House Wednesday passed what could become the first major federal gun control law in over a decade, spurred by the Virginia Tech campus killings and buttressed by National Rifle Association help.
The bill, which was passed on a voice vote, would improve state reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to stop gun purchases by people, including criminals and those adjudicated as mentally defective, who are prohibited from possessing firearms.
Seung-Hui Cho, who in April killed 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech before taking his own life, had been ordered to undergo outpatient mental health treatment and should have been barred from buying two guns he used in the rampage. But the state of Virginia had never forwarded this information to the national background check system.
If it moves through the Senate and is signed into law by the president, the bill would be the most important gun control act since Congress banned some assault weapons in 1994, the last year Democrats controlled the House. In 1996, Congress added people convicted of domestic violence to the list of those banned from purchasing firearms.
The bill was the outcome of weeks of negotiations between Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the most senior member of the House and a strong supporter of gun rights, and the NRA, and in turn, with Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., a leading gun-control advocate.
"This is good policy that will save lives," McCarthy said.
The NRA insisted that it was not a "gun control" bill because it does not disqualify anyone currently able to legally purchase a firearm.
The NRA has always supported the NICS, said the organization's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre. "We've always been vigilant about protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens to purchase guns, and equally vigilant about keeping the guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally defective and people who shouldn't have them."
Under a gun control act that passed in 1968, the year Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were killed, people barred from buying guns include those convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison, illegal drug users, those adjudicated as mentally disabled, and illegal aliens.
The legislation approved Wednesday would require states to automate and share disqualifying records with the FBI's NICS database. The bill also provides $250 million a year over the next three years to help states meet those goals and imposes penalties, including cuts in federal grants under an anti-crime law, to those states that fail to meet benchmarks for automating their systems and supplying information to the NICS.
The NRA did win some concessions in negotiating the final product.
It would automatically restore the purchasing rights of veterans who were diagnosed with mental problems as part of the process of obtaining disability benefits. LaPierre said the Clinton administration put about 80,000 such veterans into the background check system.
It also outlines an appeals process for those who feel they have been wrongfully included in the system and ensures that funds allocated to improve the NICS are not used for other gun control purposes.
"It was necessary to make some accommodations to address the concerns of gun owners," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., adding that he would be closely monitoring the provision on restoring gun rights to veterans judged to have mental disabilities.
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said his group supported the legislation, noting that the Virginia Tech shootings "tragically demonstrated the gaps in the system that allowed a dangerous person to be armed."
He said he hoped Congress and the gun lobby would go a step further and extend background checks to all gun sales, not just those licenses dealers covered by current law.
The only dissenting vote in the short House debate on the bill was voiced by GOP presidential aspirant Ron Paul of Texas. He described the bill as "a flagrantly unconstitutional expansion of restriction on the exercise of the right to bear arms protected under the 2nd Amendment.
McCarthy, in an emotional speech, said that "this has been a long, long journey for me." She ran for Congress on a gun control agenda after her husband was gunned down on a Long Island commuter train in 1993.