How was accused Arizona gunman Jared Lee Loughner able to pass his background check to obtain his Glock 19 handgun, despite a history of drug arrests, drug abuse and mental health issues?
Because Congress has chronically underfunded reforms intended to tighten those checks, according to a group of U.S. mayors.
Lawmakers have provided just a tiny percentage of the money required to carry out the reforms intended to improve the background check system enacted in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, says Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which represents the chief executives of more than 550 of the nation’s cities and towns.
The 22-year-old Loughner allegedly opened fire last week outside a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store, killing or wounding about 20 people, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), his intended target. Giffords currently is recovering in a Tucson hospital.
“The shootings in Arizona supply the latest example of the system’s serious flaws,” the mayors say in a statement. “Under federal law, drug abusers and addicts are prohibited from buying guns. Loughner was arrested on drug charges in 2007 and rejected from enlistment from the U.S. Army in 2008 after admitting to habitual drug use. Less than a year later, he passed a background check and bought a shotgun. If the system had worked and records were available to demonstrate Loughner’s drug offense and abuse, he would have failed that background check.”
Congress enacted, and President George W. Bush signed into law, reforms to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) after Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech before taking his own life.
Cho was found to be a danger to himself by a special justice of the Montgomery County General District Court on December 14, 2005. Therefore, under federal law, Cho could not purchase any firearm. But the records of his mental health problem weren’t in the NICS system because the general practice at the time was to only submit involuntary inpatient mental health orders, even though outpatient orders are also disqualifying under federal law.
The reform law signed by Bush created incentives for states to improve the reporting of mental health information into background check system. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), the preeminent gun control advocate on Capitol Hill, touts the enactment of the National Instant Criminal Background Check Database (NICS) Improvement Amendments Act on her congressional website.
The number of mental health NICS records has increased significantly under the new law, but there is much more to be done, the mayors’ group says. The best available estimates indicate that there are more than 1 million mental health records still missing, along with millions of other records on various types of prohibited purchasers, the group says.
Many states have made little or no progress reporting largely because Congress failed to follow through with funding, Mayors Against Illegal Guns says. Federal appropriators have granted only 5.3 percent of the authorized amount from fiscal year 2009 through 2011, the group says.
In part as a result of chronic underfunding, ten states still have no people flagged as mentally ill in NICS: Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
Eighteen more states and the District of Columbia still have fewer than 100 people listed as mentally ill in NICS: Iowa, Utah, Maryland, Vermont, Maine, Illinois, South Carolina, New Jersey, Kentucky, Montana, Wyoming, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oregon, and South Dakota.
Millions of records are still missing, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns. As of December 31, only 2,092 people are listed as drug abusers or addicts in NICS, the group says.
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.