Republicans to look at federal gun laws

Staffers from the House Judiciary Committee will meet with Obama administration officials Thursday to examine the effectiveness of federal laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, according to a Republican aide with the panel.

The closed-door gathering will focus on whether a federal system of background checks is working to block gun sales to the mentally ill and others barred from owning firearms, the aide said Tuesday. Staffers from both parties will attend, as well as officials from the FBI and possibly the Justice Department, the aide added.

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The meeting comes three weeks after a shooting rampage in Arizona killed a federal judge, left a congresswoman seriously wounded and reignited the public debate over whether laws need to be tightened to prevent gun sales to those with mental problems.

Staff at Thursday’s meeting will consider whether the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is effective. The system is an FBI-run database created by the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act — a law named after former President Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, who was seriously injured during the 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan. 

Under current law, licensed gun dealers are required to screen potential buyers through NICS to ensure they don't fit one of the categories barring them from purchasing firearms, including felons, illegal immigrants, spousal abusers and the mentally ill. The system is largely voluntary, however, as states are encouraged — but not required — to report information to NICS.

The holes in the screening system became evident in 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old Virginia Tech student, killed 32 students and teachers in one of the deadliest shooting rampages in the nation’s history. Although a judge had declared Cho mentally ill two years earlier, the state did not report its evaluation to NICS, allowing Cho to pass a background check by a licensed dealer. 

Following the Virginia Tech tragedy, Congress unanimously passed a law designed to bolster the NICS system by providing states with financial incentives to report records of mental illness (and other red-flag cases) to the FBI. The NICS Improvement Amendments Act was supported by the NRA and signed by then-President George W. Bush in early 2008, but reporting by states remains voluntary.


Different state privacy laws, budget restraints and political considerations have hampered the effectiveness of the enhanced reporting. Indeed, through August of last year, 10 states had not reported any cases of mental illness to NICS, while 28 states had submitted fewer than 100 records, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an advocacy group.

By contrast, Virginia had reported more than 139,000 records — the highest per capita rate in the country.

The suspect in the Arizona shooting, Jared Lee Loughner, had been expelled from community college for disturbing behavior and denied entrance to the military for a history of drug abuse, according to numerous reports. Yet he was able to buy a firearm and high-capacity ammunition magazines from local licensed dealers.

On Monday, Mayors Against Illegal Guns — a group headed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino — introduced a proposal to require states to report mental health records, drug-abuse histories, domestic violence cases and other red flags to NICS. The proposal would also require unlicensed gun dealers to perform NICS background checks — a step not mandated under current law.

“While I support the Second Amendment rights of responsible, law-abiding Americans, I also support tough, common-sense laws to keep guns out of the hands of felons, drug abusers, the mentally ill and other dangerous people,” Grant Woods, former Republican attorney general of Arizona, said in endorsing the Bloomberg proposal.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a staunch Second Amendment defender, has also indicated recently that there might be room for Congress to bolster efforts to keep guns away from the mentally ill.

"He is open to revisiting the [2007] law," Coburn spokesman John Hart said last week. "His goal is to make sure we have a way to ensure that people who are truly mentally ill and are a threat to themselves or others are not allowed to buy a firearm."

NICS funding is also an issue Judiciary will examine Thursday. Although the post-Virginia Tech law authorized $188 million for NICS in fiscal 2009, and another $375 million in fiscal 2010, Congress appropriated only $10 million and $20 million, respectively — or 5.3 percent of each year's authorization.

Rachel Parsons, a spokeswoman for the NRA, said this week that the group lobbies each year for more NICS funding — to no avail.

“The NICS system is only as good as the information that's shared with it,” Parsons said Monday in a phone interview. Parsons declined to comment on specific reforms, citing an absence of specific language.

With Republicans controlling the House, even the most vocal gun-control advocates have been pessimistic about the chances of any gun reforms moving in the 112th Congress — even after the near-assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), deflected questions to the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the gun-reform issue.

President Obama invoked Giffords’s spirit during Tuesday’s State of the Union address but made no mention of gun reform — a silence that irritated gun-control advocates on and off Capitol Hill.

“I'm disappointed, but not surprised,” Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), a longtime gun-reform proponent, said after the speech.

David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser, said Tuesday that the disappointment is premature. 

“[Obama's] going to address this,” Plouffe told NBC's Brian Williams. “It's a very important issue, and I know there's going to be a lot of debate on the Hill.”

This story was updated at 5:03 p.m.