House takes action on gun checks

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The House on Thursday approved a funding increase for the national background check system in response to last week’s mass shooting in Santa Barbara, Calif.

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Adopted 260-145, the amendment to a 2015 appropriations bill provides an additional $19.5 million in grant funding for the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is intended to prevent the sale of guns to criminals and the mentally ill.

The vote represents one of the most significant legislative actions taken by the House on guns since the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Members of the GOP leadership were split on the amendment. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) voted for it despite facing a primary challenge, as did GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). But House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) voted against it.

Only four Democrats voted against the amendment, including Reps. John Barrow of Georgia and Nick Rahall of West Virginia, who both face tough reelection races this year.

The National Rifle Association was neutral on the NICS amendment, according to spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. Opposition from the gun rights group could have sunk the proposal.

Amendment sponsor Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) said the additional grant funding would strengthen the background check system and keep “dangerous people” from buying firearms.

"Right now, all of the information isn't getting in. When the information doesn't get into the system, we can't enforce the law, and dangerous people who otherwise wouldn't pass a background check can slip through the cracks and buy guns," Thompson said.

The California Democrat said the amendment would help states that do not have adequate funding or resources to submit comprehensive data to the NICS database. 

Thompson cited the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, when the state of Virginia did not report a judge's evaluation that Seung-Hui Cho was mentally ill. Because the judge's evaluation was never submitted to NICS, Cho passed a background check to purchase a firearm before attacking the university campus.

Similarly, Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old former Santa Barbara City College student, had reportedly been suffering from mental health problems before he went on a shooting spree that ended in four deaths, including his own.

"Our states need more resources to get all their information into the NICS system. If we give them the resources, we can stop dangerous people from getting guns, and we can save lives," Thompson said.

Under current law, licensed gun dealers are required to run potential weapons buyers through NICS to screen out felons, illegal immigrants, spousal abusers, the severely mentally ill, or another category that would bar them from buying or owning weapons. States are encouraged, but not required, to report such information to NICS.

Following the Virginia Tech shooting, Congress unanimously passed legislation providing states with financial incentives to report red-flag cases to the FBI. But reporting by states remains voluntary, and there are huge discrepancies between the states when it comes to the number of submissions made.

The funding proposal approved Thursday aims to close the gap by bringing NICS grant funding up to $78 million for fiscal 2015, up from $59 million this year and $18 million in fiscal 2013. 

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, said the extra funding would help prevent criminals and the mentally ill from buying guns.

"Enforcing existing laws that keeps guns out of the hands of prohibited individuals is a goal we all share," Wolf said.

The increased funding for the NICS would be offset with cuts to other accounts, including the Commerce Department's management account and the Justice Department's information technology fund.

The other sponsors of the amendment were Reps. Peter King (R-N.Y.), Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), Joe Heck (R-Nev.), Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.).

The House debated the amendment for seven minutes starting at 10:35 p.m. Wednesday. A recorded vote was postponed until Thursday evening.

— Mike Lillis contributed. 

This story was updated at 7:09 p.m.