On The Anniversary Of Virginia Tech, The NRA May Once Again Try To Weaken Gun Laws

Six years ago, Virginia Tech University went down in history as the site of the deadliest school shooting to ever occur in the US. Seung-Hui Choi, a 23-year-old English major, gunned down 56 people and killed 32. Choi had been declared “an imminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness” by a court in 2005, yet was still able to pass a background check to buy two guns and several high capacity magazines. Armed with these high-powered weapons, Choi’s massacre took just 15 minutes from start to finish.

Since Virginia Tech, there have been 20 mass shootings in the US. In December, the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, CT, came the closest to matching the Virginia Tech bloodbath, with 26 casualties.

The post-Newtown push for more effective gun regulation in some ways mirrors the momentum for change after the Virginia Tech massacre. In the aftermath of Virginia Tech, the Bush administration proposed legislation requiring states to share with the FBI the names of people who had been involuntarily committed to mental health facilities, so they could be included in the federal background check system. Congress passed the bill, but only after the National Rifle Association extracted two concessions that ultimately undermined the entire law.

The NRA refused to support the bill unless it also required states to set up gun rights restoration programs for mentally ill people, and narrowed the definition of a “mental defect.” These two provisions both enabled the bill’s passage and created new loopholes in the Gun Control Act of 1968. As a 2011 New York Times investigation detailed, the law has been rendered toothless by lenient state restoration programs. Hundreds of people with mental health issues have their gun rights restored every year — and some go on to use those guns to kill themselves or others:

In a typical case, Joshua St. Clair, who served in Iraq with the National Guard, got his gun rights back last year. About six months earlier, Mr. St. Clair, now 22, had heard a rattling at his gate. He said he “kind of blacked out” and the next thing he knew, he was pointing his M-4 assault rifle at his friend’s chest. That led to a temporary detention order, treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and loss of his firearms rights. He took a note from his psychiatrist to his restoration hearing, which he said “lasted maybe about five minutes,” but he said the judge did not even ask to see it.

In the wake of the Newtown shooting, the NRA spent months loudly denouncing any effort to strengthen gun laws. To appear supportive of background check reform, the gun lobby threw its weight behind a deceptive bill claiming to strengthen background checks. In fact, the bill would let individuals who had been involuntarily committed skip judicial screening to restore their gun rights. Instead, people could apply to have their names removed from the system immediately.

The Senate’s most promising background checks compromise will likely come to a vote this week. The NRA remains opposed, but one gun group enthusiastically endorsed the bill because of its stiff penalties for gun record compilations and its restoration of gun rights for veterans deemed “mentally defective” by Veterans Affairs. Yet even with these concessions to gun rights groups, the background check bill is still short of the 60-vote threshold needed to defeat a filibuster.

To entice pro-gun lawmakers, the Senate may also consider adding an NRA-supported amendment requiring all states to recognize concealed-carry permits, essentially wiping out tough state laws. Another concession on the table would allow unlicensed gun dealers who live more than 100 miles from a federally licensed dealer to forego background checks.