Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Colt .45 semiautomatic pistols with ammo and clips.
Colt .45 semiautomatic pistols with ammo and clips. Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Prospective gun buyers with mental health problems will be easily flagged now that a long-stalled bill inspired by the mass murder at Virginia Tech has been passed.
In a voice vote Wednesday, Congress passed the measure, which would help states with the cost.
It comes after months of negotiations between Senate Democrats and Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the lone lawmaker who objected and delayed passage.
Coburn had worried the measure did not pay for successful appeals by veterans and others who claim they are wrongly barred from buying a gun. But he and Democratic supporters agreed the government would pay for the cost of appeals by gun owners and prospective buyers who argue successfully in court that they were wrongly deemed unqualified for mental health reasons.
The bill would authorize up to $250 million a year over five years for states and as much as $125 million a year over the same period for state courts to help defray the cost of enacting the policy.
"This bill will make America safer without affecting the rights of a single law-abiding citizen," said the Senate's chief sponsor, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer.
One of the House's chief sponsors, New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, spoke about her husband, who was killed by a gunman on the Long Island Railroad in New York.
"To me, this is the best Christmas present I could ever receive," she said.
Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) added that the bill will speed up background checks and reinforce the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and himself on April 16 using two guns he had bought despite his documented history of mental illness. He had been ruled a danger to himself during a court commitment hearing in 2005. He had been ordered to have outpatient mental health treatment and should have been barred from buying the two guns he used.
Virginia never forwarded the information to the national background check system.
The measure would clarify what mental health records should be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which helps gun dealers determine whether to sell a firearm to a prospective buyer and gives states financial incentives for compliance. The attorney general could penalize states if they fail to meet compliance targets.
Also, the bill was underpinned by an uncommon accord between political foes: the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the National Rifle Association.
The compromise between Coburn and Democrats requires that incorrect records — such as expunged mental health rulings that once disqualified a prospective gun buyer but no longer do — be removed from system within 30 days.
The original bill requires any agency, such as the Veterans Administration or the Defense Department, to notify a person flagged as mentally ill and disqualified from buying or possessing a gun.
The new version now also would require notification when someone has been cleared of that restriction.
It was not immediately clear whether President Bush intended to sign the bill.
With additional reporting from The Associated Press