House to vote on bolstering gun checks

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The House is scheduled to vote Thursday on a bipartisan proposal to bolster the background check system for gun sales.

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Unveiled late Wednesday, the legislation would provide $19.5 million in additional grant money to help states submit records to a national FBI database designed to block gun sales to certain criminals and the severely mentally ill.

Supporters of the measure said the funding is vital to keeping firearms out of the hands of potentially dangerous people – an issue highlighted in tragic fashion by last Friday's deadly shooting rampage in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"The background check system is only as good as the data you put in it. And right now, all the information isn't getting in," said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), a chief sponsor of the bill and the head of the Democrats' task force to prevent gun violence. "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."

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

At issue is the effectiveness of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), an FBI-run database created by Congress in 1993.

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. The system, however, is largely voluntary: States are encouraged, but not required, to report information to NICS.

The holes in NICS were revealed 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. A Virginia judge had declared Cho mentally ill two years earlier, but the state did not report its evaluation to NICS, allowing Cho to pass a background check by a licensed gun dealer.

Following the Virginia Tech tragedy, Congress unanimously passed legislation providing states with financial incentives to report records of mental illness and other red-flag cases to the FBI.

President George W. Bush signed the NICS Improvement Amendments Act into law in early 2008. But reporting by states remains voluntary, and there are huge discrepancies between the states when it comes to the number of submissions. Some states, like Virginia, have submitted hundreds of thousands of records to NICS. Six others have submitted fewer than 30 records, Thompson said.

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

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

The measure is expected to come up for a vote Thursday as an amendment to the much larger package providing funding for the Commerce and Justice departments.

The National Rifle Association didn't immediately comment for this article.