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The Nation

Gun bill passes with aid of NRA

House orders improved system to track mental patients, others barred from arms purchases. Senate approval likely.

June 14, 2007|Joel Havemann | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday passed what could become the first significant gun legislation in a decade, directing states to streamline the system for keeping track of criminals, mental patients and others barred from buying firearms, and providing $250 million a year for the central database and grants to states to contribute to it.

The bill, which was passed by acclamation, was the product of rare cooperation between gun-control advocates and the National Rifle Assn. It is intended to address problems highlighted by the April 16 mass shooting at Virginia Tech by a student with a history of mental health problems.

The measure is expected to pass the Senate.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), a sponsor of the bill, said the current state records system was so flawed that "millions of criminal records are not accessible" by the national database that is supposed to notify gun dealers of disqualified buyers.

"I came to Congress in 1997, in the wake of my own personal tragedy, to help prevent gun violence," said McCarthy, referring to her husband's death at the hands of a gunman on a Long Island commuter train in 1993.

A spokesman for the NRA insisted that the bill did not amount to gun control and said the group endorsed it because it would improve enforcement of current gun restrictions, rather than adding more. "There's nothing in this bill that's a step backwards," said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.

Stricter gun-control efforts began after President Kennedy was slain in 1963 and culminated in a significant revision of gun laws in 1968, after the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

The last major changes came in 1994 -- the last year, until now, that both houses of Congress were under Democratic control -- when a five-day waiting period and background checks on potential handgun purchasers were imposed and the sale of some assault weapons was banned.

But since 1996, when individuals convicted of domestic violence were added to the list of prohibited purchasers, gun rights organizations have successfully fended off attempts to impose additional controls. Even after the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, an effort to make sales of guns at gun shows subject to rules similar to those governing licensed dealers failed in Congress. The ban on selling assault weapons was allowed to lapse in 2004.

The latest legislation passed the House as President Bush received a report on the Virginia Tech shootings recommending broader action. The report endorsed the key goal of the House legislation: better reporting by the states to the FBI's database of the names of people not allowed to purchase a gun because of a mental disability.

"The focus of discussions related to gun policy was on increasing the effectiveness of current federal firearms regulation, which is limited by divergent state practices," said the report by the departments of Health and Human Services, Justice and Education. For example, the report noted that only 23 states provide information to the FBI on people who, under federal law, cannot buy a gun because of mental health issues.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said that the president "very much" supported the goals of the House bill, but that his aides had some concerns about its $250-million annual price tag.

The House acted after a parade of legislators from both parties praised the legislation. Only Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a presidential candidate, spoke out against the bill, calling it "flagrantly unconstitutional" for undermining the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms as well as a violation of privacy rights of those whose medical records go into the FBI database.

The bill would require states to enter into that database the names of persons whom a court has deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Seung-hui Cho, who killed 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech before taking his own life, had been ordered by a court to undergo outpatient mental health therapy and should have been barred from buying the two handguns he used. But because he was ordered to get only outpatient care, his name was not sent to the FBI.

"The Virginia Tech shootings tragically demonstrated the gaps in the system that allowed a dangerous person to be armed," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

LaPierre, in the uncustomary position of being in accord with Helmke, said the bill would not infringe on the right of qualified people to buy guns; it would merely tighten enforcement of existing laws that are supposed to deny unqualified persons the opportunity to buy guns. "We've always been vigorous about keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them," he said.

But he warned the Senate not to amend the bill to include tougher gun controls. Such a strategy, he said, could cost the support of the gun lobby.

--

joel.havemann@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

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