Video: Why was Cho able to buy a gun?

By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/23/2007 7:32:21 PM ET 2007-04-23T23:32:21

In Virginia, lawyers for the state say they're reviewing their own laws, checking whether Seung-Hui Cho's history of mental problems should have disqualified him from buying firearms.  But the fact that he was able to buy two guns raises new questions about how the background checks work.

Investigators say the dealers who sold Seung Hui Cho his guns followed the law to the letter.

"We did a background check," says John Markell, the firearms dealer who sold Cho one of his guns. "He cleared the state police and the federal computers and was able to take the gun with him."

But gun control advocates say those  computer checks should have picked up Cho's history of mental problems and stopped him. Why? Because federal law bans gun sales to anyone found by a court to be a danger to himself or others because of mental illness. And a year and a half ago, after Cho talked about suicide, a Virginia judge declared him a danger to himself as a result of mental illness.

"On the face of that court order, he should have been barred from buying a gun from a licensed dealer," says Dennis Henigan with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

But in Virginia, the state enters people like Cho into the gun check computers only if they've actually been committed for treatment, such as to a hospital, which Cho never was.

Virginia's attorney general says the state is now examining its policy. But even with those problems, Virginia's system turns out to be the best in the country — far ahead of any other state in reporting mental health records.

There are 28 other states that fail to report mental illness. In fact, more than half the states don't report any mental health records at all to the federal database that gun dealers use to check a buyer's background. The states are lax about it, because the Supreme Court ruled 10 years ago that reporting that information is voluntary for them. Congress is now considering a bill to give states more money to improve the records — and reduce money from other federal programs if they don't.

"It was an eye-opener, for certainly this office and for myself, on how many states are not putting all of the information into the system," says Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y.

House leaders say they'll take up the bill in a few weeks. And supporters say the NRA will not oppose it. 

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