Dangerous and armed

April 26, 2007

Responding to a 2005 stalking complaint, a Virginia court found Seung-Hui Cho to be dangerously mentally ill, but that legal judgment didn't prevent him from buying the guns that he used to kill 32 people at Virginia Tech last week. He should have failed his background check - but he didn't because of the standard by which states report such cases to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

This is a loophole that can't be left open. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine has indicated that he wants to change the reporting requirement. Officials there didn't pass along the court decision because Mr. Cho wasn't involuntarily committed, nor was he judged not guilty by reason of insanity or legally incompetent by a court, information that is typically provided by Virginia authorities to the FBI's background check system.

But Mr. Cho was judged to be an imminent danger to himself as a result of his mental illness and was ordered to seek outpatient treatment. Under federal law, guns aren't supposed to be sold to people who have been found by courts to be "mentally defective." That should include anyone who has been found to be a danger to himself or others.

But even if Virginia begins supplying this information, that hardly solves the problem. Only 22 states report mental health records of any kind to the FBI. Even in Maryland, officials are doubtful that a court decision like the one in the Cho case would have caused a gun purchase to be flagged.

What's needed are sweeping reforms on the federal level to produce sensible and uniform reporting standards and close this and other gaps in the criminal background check system. Gun control advocates can point to many incidents in which people who should fail the background check - often because of a criminal conviction - do not because states have not forwarded the relevant records.

And while Congress closes Brady law loopholes, it ought to address one of the most egregious - the government's failure to regulate unlicensed gun sellers at gun shows, where buyers can avoid a background check altogether.

Hardcore gun rights advocates will no doubt protest. But most Americans don't want people with serious mental illnesses having easy access to guns, nor do they want terrorists buying weapons at flea markets or other "shows." These are sensible, rational steps the country needs to take to strengthen the Brady law in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings.

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