STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here's one of many questions raised by the Virginia Tech shootings last week. The question is how a man so deranged was able to buy a gun.
Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports on the background checks for weapons buyers and gaps in the system.
SCOTT FINN: In past years, both gun control advocates and the National Rifle Association have supported efforts to beef up a national background check system.
In gun shops across America, you must fill out a form for a background check before you can legally buy a firearm. The form asks if you were a felon, a fugitive from justice or an illegal alien. And then there's question 12F. Have you even been adjudicated mentally defective, or have you ever been committed to a mental institution? The answers you give are checked against the database maintained by more than 500 FBI employees in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
If you're not on the list, you're usually allowed to buy a gun. The FBI center has up-to-date records of almost every criminal conviction in the country. But as complete as the database is, it includes only a tiny fraction of the people who are barred from owning guns due to mental illness.
In 2002, a West Virginia man named Frankie Atkins slipped through that loophole and killed Delphia Doss' only son. The Virginia Tech killings have brought it all back to Doss.
Ms. DELPHIA DOSS (Resident, Virginia): When I heard of this shooting, I thought, oh my God. All these mothers have got, for the rest of their life, this agony and torture.
Mr. FINN: Frankie Atkins was sent to a psychiatric hospital 19 times in the seven years before the murder. But he passed his background check because the FBI didn't have his name in the system. Twenty-eight states, including West Virginia, don't share the names of people who have been committed to a mental hospital.
State officials say that's because they don't have the money or the technology to do it easily. FBI assistant director Tom Bush admits that they're only getting a small percentage of names that should be in the database.
Mr. TOM BUSH (Assistant Director, Criminal Justice Information Services Division, Federal Bureau Investigation): We send letters to states, we hold different symposiums and conferences, trying as many records as we can to make these files as accurate as possible.
FINN: The state of Virginia does share its information with the FBI, but Cho apparently fell to another hole in the system. Congress passed a law in 1968 barring certain mentally ill people from buying guns. It prohibits gun sales to anyone who has been judged as mentally defective. Cho seemed to meet that vague standard, said University of Virginia professor Richard Bonnie.
Professor RICHARD BONNIE (School of Law, University of Virginia): Mental defective is defined in this very broad way that includes somebody who is mentally ill and has been adjudicated to be a danger to himself or others, which does seem to cover what happened in this case.
Mr. FINN: But Virginia officials only send the FBI the names of people who are actually committed to a mental institution. Since Cho was ordered to outpatient therapy, his name never became part of the FBI database. Gun control advocates want to improve the FBI database.
New York Congresswoman Caroline McCarthy, whose husband was killed on a Long Island commuter train by a mentally ill gunman, has tried for years to pass legislation providing federal money so states can upgrade. Her spokesman, George Burke, says in exchange for that money, states would be required to hand their mental health records to the FBI.
Mr. GEORGE BURKE (Spokesman for Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy): We're not trying to take away anyone's right to own a gun. All we're trying to do is to ensure that people who have been found by court not able to purchase a gun under the 1968 Gun Act don't get that gun.
Mr. FINN: But a lesser-known gun advocacy group, Virginia-based Gun Owners of America, has worked in tandem with mental health advocates to stop the legislation. Ron Honberg is director of policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Mr. RON HONBERG (Director of Policy and Legal Affairs, National Alliance on Mental Illness): It's hard enough to get people to participate in mental health treatment. Do we really want to inadvertently create yet another disincentive for people to voluntarily seek mental health treatment when they need it?
Mr. FINN: Almost no one who's familiar with the current system believes that it's working. But with such sensitive issues at stake, even last week's shooting at Virginia Tech may not be enough to spur the different sides to compromise.
For NPR News, I'm Scott Finn in Charleston, West Virginia.
INSKEEP: By the way, Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine may sidestep that debate with an executive order. Kaine said yesterday he's considering an order that would give gun sellers access to more information on a potential buyer's mental health.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.