Emergency workers carried people from Norris Hall on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., on April 16, 2007 after a gunman killed 32 people. (Photo: Alan Kim/The Roanoke Times, via Associated Press)
The National Shooting Sports Foundation reflected on the success of its Fix NICS campaign in a blog post last week as the 10th anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting came and went — a stark reminder of the role mental health records play in the federal background check system.
On April 16, 2007, 23-year-old Seung Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, chained the doors of the campus’s Norris Hall shut before systematically firing on dozens of students and faculty trapped inside, killing 32 and wounding 17 others. Ten minutes into the rampage, Cho killed himself, ending the deadliest school shooting in American history and igniting a nationwide debate on the federal government’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
A Virginia court declared Cho mentally ill two years before the shooting spree — stripping him of his Second Amendment rights. The court opted against hospitalizing Cho for his depression, Virginia State Police told CBS News in the week after the massacre, meaning he could still technically own firearms under state law, like the two semiautomatic handguns he bought from a federally licensed dealer to use in the attack. Cho passed a background check for both guns in less than 10 minutes, CBS reported.
Dennis Henigan, the legal director for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence said at the time, “Somebody in the Virginia apparatus made a mistake in interpreting federal law and with tragic consequences.”
According to CBS News, the FBI defended Virginia’s decision, describing it as “the leading state in reporting mental defective entries for the NICS index.”
In 2007, only 22 states submitted mental health records to NICS, with Virginia providing more than 80,000, the FBI said.
The NSSF and gun control groups agree strengthening the federal background check system relies on states’ willingness to upload disqualifying records to NICS — though few states before 2013 complied.
“Through a multi-state effort focused on forming coalitions in the states with the fewest submitted records, the industry has dedicated significant resources to helping states overcome the legal, technological, and intrastate coordination challenges preventing effective record sharing,” said Larry Keane, NSSF’s general counsel, in a blog post published Thursday.
A 2012 review of state participation levels in NICS revealed 19 state provided less than 100 records to the federal system. Some two-thirds of those states made fewer than 12 records available, the NSSF said Thursday.
“The industry’s FixNICS campaign addresses this by advocating for changes to state laws and regulations that encourage agencies and courts to fully participate by making sure they submit mental health records that show an individual is prohibited from purchasing a firearm under current law,” Keane said.
Since kicking off its campaign four years ago, the numbers of disqualifying records uploaded to NICS increased 170 percent. Legislation passed in 16 states boosted the number of records provided to NICS from 1.6 million in 2012 to almost 4.5 million in 2016.
“This significant increase is driven by states like Pennsylvania, which now has 794,589 records, compared to one in 2012,” Keane said. “New Jersey, another FixNICS success story, has now submitted 431,543 records, up from 17 in 2012, and is now ranked as the second best state on a per capita basis.”
He continued, “Ten years after the Virginia Tech tragedy, the firearms and ammunition industry continues to work with states and coalition partners to ensure the background check system is effective and complete.”
Since Congress approved the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1994, more than 257 million background checks have been processed through NICS.
Since then, state and federal attempts to expand the background check system have thus far focused on which type of sales to regulate or how long to mandate waiting periods when applications fall into pending status. Supporters of the various measures say subjecting private transfers to background checks will keep guns out of the hands of criminals, while longer waiting periods afford the FBI more time to investigate red flags turned up in the background check process.
Gun groups, however, say lengthening waiting periods or casting a wider net on sales doesn’t address the true issue with NICS — shoddy record keeping at the local level and an unwillingness from certain states to upload disqualifying documents into NICS.
“What did the Oregon killer, the WDBJ killer, the Charleston church killer, the Santa Barbra killer, the Maryland mall killer, the LA airport killer, the DC Navy yard killer, the Aurora movie theater killer, the Tucson killer, the Virginia Tech killer and both Fort Hood killers have in common? Every single one of them passed a background check,” said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and CEO of the National Rifle Association in a January video campaign against expanded background checks. “If you cast a net and the fish swim through the holes, you don’t need a bigger net. You need tighter holes.”
LaPierre said three-quarters of states submit less than 80 percent of their felony convictions to NICS, keeping seven million prohibited purchasers “in the dark.”
“And until the politicians demand that they are submitted, killers who are legally prohibited from owning firearms will walk into gun stores and pass every background check they take,” he said.