By Mike Lillis - 08/17/12 08:41 PM EDT
Victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting massacre are urging President Obama and Mitt Romney to support tougher screenings for potential gun buyers.
The advocates say the string of summer shooting sprees around the country make clear that gaps in the background-check system — gaps Congress attempted to close following the Tech tragedy — remain open and need addressing.
"We know firsthand that gaps and flaws in our nation’s gun laws allow guns to fall too easily into the hands of criminals and other dangerous people," 67 Virginia Tech survivors and victim relatives wrote Thursday to Obama and Romney. "Now is the time to fix our nation’s broken gun laws, but we need our nation’s leaders to tell us the specific steps you will take to prevent more bloodshed."
A series of high-profile shootings in recent weeks has thrust the country's gun laws — among the most lenient in the world — back into the national spotlight. Last month in Aurora, Colo., a lone gunman stormed a packed movie theater and shot 70 people, killing 12. On Aug. 5, a lone shooter entered a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee and killed five members of the group. And on Monday, a man facing eviction near Texas A&M University shot six people, killing two, including the constable serving the eviction notice.
Both Obama and Romney have reacted to the shootings by offering condolences, but neither presidential contender has proposed a specific plan designed to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Obama came the closest, suggesting after Aurora that policymakers should do "everything possible to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing weapons."
"We should check someone's criminal record before they can check out a gun seller," he said.
But the president also hasn't stuck his neck out for tougher laws, citing the difficulty — some say futility — of moving such proposals through Congress in the current political environment.
Romney — who was a champion of tougher gun laws as governor of Massachusetts — has rejected new restrictions altogether.
"I don't think gun laws are the answer," Romney told Piers Morgan after the Aurora shooting.
Such responses don't sit well with the victims of gun violence, who are growing more forceful in their calls for the nation's leaders to act.
"[We] demand a plan from you to fix the broken background check system and reduce gun violence," the Virginia Tech victims wrote Thursday.
The letter highlights the shifting tactics adopted by gun reformers in recent years. No longer are they arguing against gun ownership — a 2008 Supreme Court decision pretty much settled that matter — but instead they're fighting for ways to keep violent people from obtaining the weapons they would use on others.
That debate centers around the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), an FBI database through which licensed gun dealers are required to screen potential buyers before making a sale. Under federal law, felons, illegal immigrants, spousal abusers and the severely mentally ill are barred from buying or owning firearms.
The system is largely voluntary, however, as states are encouraged — but not required — to report such information to NICS. Additionally, unlicensed gun sellers are not required to screen buyers at all — an enormous hole in the screening process that allows most anyone to purchase firearms.
The Virginia Tech victims have an unwanted expertise in the matter, as the shooter in that massacre — a 23-year-old student named Seung-Hui Cho — had been declared mentally ill by a state judge but was still able to purchase guns through a licensed dealer. The state of Virginia, it turned out, had not reported the judge's verdict to NICS.
In the wake of that tragedy, Congress unanimously passed a law designed to boost the effectiveness of NICS by offering states financial incentives to report cases of mental illness and other markers raising red flags. In 2008, then-President George W. Bush signed the NICS Improvement Amendments Act into law, but state reporting remains voluntary.
The issue resurfaced early last year, when a shooting rampage in Tucson left six people dead and 13 others injured, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
The suspect in that case, Jared Lee Loughner, had been expelled from community college for disturbing behavior and denied entrance to the military for a history of drug abuse. But, like Cho, he was able to buy a gun and high-capacity ammunition magazines from licensed dealers.
The voluntary nature of NICS has created vast reporting discrepancies between states. Virginia, for instance, has submitted more than 170,000 mental health records to the system, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an advocacy group headed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. Idaho has submitted none.
Many gun reformers argue that NICS reporting is simply grossly underfunded. While the 2008 law has authorized a total of $1.125 billion to improve record sharing over the last four years, they note, Congress has appropriated only $51 million toward that end.
Even the National Rifle Association — which supported the 2008 law but opposes practically any new restrictions on the industry — has pushed Congress to provide more money to NICS.
Those funding concerns did not go unnoticed on Capitol Hill this year, as Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations subcommittee, spiked NICS funding up to $12 million in fiscal 2013 — an increase of $7 million over 2012 levels.
The Virginia Tech victims, however, have vowed not to stop pushing for tougher screenings until the White House — whoever's in it — comes up with a plan.
"[O]ur current system is broken," they wrote. "In addition to your praise for the concept, we ask that you tell us and the American people how you will fix the system in practice."