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Senate gun bill tied to Va. Tech shootings stalls

A bill inspired by the Virginia Tech shootings is bogged down by objections over funding and who should be barred from buying a firearm.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A bill inspired by the Virginia Tech shootings is bogged down by objections over funding and who should be barred from buying a firearm.

The bill would tighten requirements for states to share gun purchasers’ mental health information with the federal government.

Majority Democrats in the Senate were poised as early as this past Monday to bring the bill to a vote until Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., objected.

Coburn says he has concerns that billions of dollars of new spending in the bill is not paid for by cuts in other programs. And he says the bill does not pay for appeals by veterans or other Americans who feel they have been wrongly barred from buying a gun.

“As Congress prepares to raise the debt limit once again, it is not too much to ask politicians to do the job they were elected to do and make choices,” Coburn said Wednesday. “Veterans, or any other American, should not lose their Second Amendment rights if they have been unfairly tagged as having mental health concerns.”

Propelled by a rare alliance between the National Rifle Association and majority Democrats, the legislation was passed in similar form by the House and would be the first major gun control law in more than a decade.

“Nothing can bring back the lives tragically lost at Virginia Tech, but this amendment will begin to repair and restore our faith in the (national background check) system and help prevent similar tragedies in the future,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is sponsoring the bill with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

“When the NRA and Chuck Schumer agree, that tells you it’s something worth doing,” Schumer said.

Mental health gap in gun law?
The legislation aims to fix flaws in the national background check system that allowed Seung-Hui Cho, a mentally ill Virginia Tech student, to buy guns and kill 32 people April 16 in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Cho had been ruled a danger to himself during a court commitment hearing in 2005. He had been ordered to undergo outpatient mental health treatment and should have been barred from buying the two guns he used in the rampage. However, the commonwealth of Virginia never forwarded the information to the national background check system.

The legislation clarifies what mental health records should be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and gives states financial incentives for compliance.

The Senate version of the bill is very similar to the House version, with a few changes.

The Senate authorizes up to $400 million a year over five years in new grant funding for improvements to the information technology and state compliance programs, an increase over the House version’s $250 million a year over three years. The Senate version would begin appropriations in 2009, rather than 2008 as in the House-passed version.

It also gives the attorney general discretion to penalize states beginning after three years if they do not meet compliance targets.