Senate Hearing Shines Light On Gun Checks Loopholes

November 15, 2011 12:18 pm ET — Chris Brown

FN57Today, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism is holding a hearing on the Fix Gun Checks Act. Fix Gun Checks would require background checks for all gun sales and help facilitate the inclusion of all records that belong in the gun background check system. The mass shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech and Tucson have demonstrated how loopholes in current laws are exploited with tragic consequences.

While licensed gun dealers are required to conduct background checks, private sellers don't have to conduct background checks under federal law. Investigations have shown that private sellers at gun shows were willing to sell guns to people who said they probably couldn't pass a background check. They've also shown a private seller who admitted he'd sold hundreds of guns without background checks.

Less well known is the failure of states to add mental health records to the system. In the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, it was revealed that shooter Seung Hui Cho had passed two background checks and purchased multiple guns despite a court ruling that should have prohibited him from buying a firearm. But Cho's records were never added to the background check system. Cho wasn't alone; millions of records identifying dangerously mentally ill people and drug abusers have not been added to the database.

Despite the 2007 NICS Improvement Act incentivizing states to add their mental health records to the background check system, many states have added few or in some cases no records at all. In the case of January's Tucson mass shooting, alleged shooter Jared Loughner was known to have both severe mental health issues and a drug abuse history. In Arizona, only 4,465 records were added between 2008 and October 2010, less than 5 percent of the state's backlog of 121,700 mental health records.

In a new report, Fatal Gaps, Mayors Against Illegal Guns points out that while the number of mental health records in the background check system is increasing, millions of records are still missing from the system. Arizona submitted 8,516 mental health records from August 2010 to October 2011; the state's own estimates suggest over a hundred thousand are still missing.