What Right-Wing Media Should Understand About The Virginia Tech Massacre

Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

Although right-wing media have largely claimed that gun violence prevention proposals would have no effect on the incidence of mass shootings, the six-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre highlights how deficient gun laws facilitate the epidemic of gunfire that claims roughly 30,000 American lives each year.

Conservatives in media have suggested that proposals being considered by the Senate to reduce firearm-related violence do not address mass shootings or gun violence generally and even denied that the proposal addresses the mental health issue at all.

However, gun violence prevention legislation under consideration by the Senate would address circumstances that facilitated the Virginia Tech massacre, one of the deadliest school shootings in United States history, which involved the sale of firearms to an individual prohibited by law from owning guns because of a mental health problem.

The Virginia Tech shootings, where 49 individuals were shot in a dormitory and academic building resulting in 32 fatalities, called attention to the fact that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) does not contain complete records of individuals prohibited under federal law from buying a firearm.

Along with felons, fugitives from justice, domestic abusers and other categories of prohibited persons, it is unlawful for an individual with mental health problems who is a danger to themselves or others to purchase a firearm. Roughly 16 months before the Virginia Tech massacre, shooter Seung-Hui Cho had been adjudicated by a judge to be "an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness." This record should have been forwarded to the NICS system and created a disqualifying record for Cho, but instead he was able to obtain firearms after passing background checks on at least two separate occasions.

In 2007, Congress passed the NICS Improvement Amendments Act to provide funding for states to ensure that disqualifying records were forwarded to NICS. Between 2009 and 2011, however, Congress only appropriated 5.3 percent of the authorized funding to improve NICS. Provisions in both the current Senate gun violence prevention package and the Toomey-Manchin proposal would offer states additional incentives in the form of increased funding and disincentives through funding cuts to submit disqualifying records into NICS.

According to a report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, millions of records are missing from NICS. While the overall number of records submitted to NICS has increased, MAIG found that as of October 31, 2011, "Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have submitted fewer than 100 mental health records to the federal database. Seventeen states have submitted fewer than ten mental health records, and four states have not submitted any records."

[Mayors Against Illegal Guns, accessed 4/15/13]

The increase in records was also tied to an increase in the number of failed background checks by individuals prohibited from owning a firearm because of mental illness. According to annual NICS operational reports, the number of denials because of mental illness rose from 405 in 2006 to 7,879 in 2011.

Other less reported tragedies have highlighted the danger of missing records. In November 2012, Gerald Hume, who authorities said suffered from schizophrenia, was arrested after a standoff with police.  

Authorities attempted to enter Hume's home after receiving a report from his elderly mother that he had recently purchased a number of firearms. After subduing Hume, police found the dismembered body of his mother, who had been fatally shot. According to the police captain involved in the investigation, Hume had obtained firearms from Wal-Mart and Gun World, both which are federal licensed gun dealers that conduct background checks.

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Justice & Civil Liberties, Guns
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