Legislation pushes for better criminal background checks

Spurred by the shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) is promoting her legislation to improve a national database used to check potential gun buyers for criminal records or histories of mental illness.

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Act would make $750 million available to state agencies through 2010 to improve their ability to automate their information and transmit it to the national database.

McCarthy, whose husband was killed and son wounded by a mentally ill gunman on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993, has been a strong proponent of gun control. She said the new bill is intended to close loopholes in existing laws.

For example, although felony convictions are supposed to be reported to the database, 25 states are not doing that because they have not yet automated those processes, McCarthy said.

In addition, 33 states have not automated or do not share mental health records that would disqualify some individuals from a gun purchase. And domestic violence restraining orders should be accessible in the database but currently are not, McCarthy said.

The bill would establish a nationwide grant program to help state law enforcement agencies and courts automate and transmit records for inclusion in the database.

“While maintaining NICS records ultimately is the responsibility of the states, state budgets are already overburdened,” McCarthy said in a news release. “The NICS Improvement Act will give states the resources to eliminate the legal loopholes that allow prohibited individuals from legally purchasing firearms.”

Similar legislation McCarthy submitted passed the House via voice vote in the 107th Congress.

Since it was created in 1994, the database has resulted in the denial of a firearm purchase to 700,000 individuals who failed a criminal background check. Since the Virginia Tech campus shootings, there has been speculation about what might have prevented the tragedy.

Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho went on a shooting rampage April 16 in which he killed 32 people and himself. Although some experts said he was mentally ill before the shooting, he was not legally disqualified from buying firearms.

Alice Lipowicz writes for Washington Technology, an 1105 Government Information Group publication.

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