For gun bill, unusual partners

Democrats and the NRA negotiate legislation to close loopholes exposed by the Virginia Tech tragedy.

The deal to tighten up the nation's gun laws for the first time since 1994 is a proof that when the interests of a powerful lobby coincide with an equally powerful politician, Washington can do business.

The bill, brokered between Democratic leaders led by Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan and the National Rifle Association, would close some gaping loopholes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). It would also provide $250 million in financial incentives to help states computerize criminal and mental-health records, and it outlines penalties for failing to do so.

Similar bills have languished in Congress over the past three sessions. But after the April massacre at Virginia Tech, in which a student who had been adjudicated as mentally ill killed 32 people, the issue gained new salience – particularly for Representative Dingell. One of Congress's most powerful Democrats, and a former NRA board member, he made improving the NICS system a top priority.

The NRA, which has been repositioning itself since Democrats took control of Congress, needed to show that it is reasonable and wants the current laws to work properly, say political analysts. It also hopes to stave off broader-based gun control.

Yet some critics say the compromise legislation doesn't go far enough because it does nothing to address the so-called "private gun-sale loophole." An estimated 40 to 50 percent of gun sales in the country are made at gun shows and by private individuals who are not required to perform background checks. Others are opposed because the legislation would create an appeals process that would make it easier for prohibited buyers to get their names removed from the NICS database.

Still others are opposed because they contend the appeals process is too cumbersome.

But advocates of the compromise say that improving the current system is better than doing nothing, especially if it appears to have a chance of passage.

"Anytime a congressman as powerful as Dingell and a lobby as powerful as the NRA can reach agreement, it has a pretty good chance of going through," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "They're quite a team."

NICS was created as a result of the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. It required federally licensed gun dealers to check gun buyers' backgrounds to ensure they didn't have any criminal convictions or mental-health adjudications that would prohibit them from purchasing a firearm.

NICS become fully operational and permanent in 1998. But it soon became apparent the system had plenty of problems. The first, according to critics, is that it applied only to federally licensed gun dealers, who account for an estimated half of all guns sales in the United States.

Other problems also surfaced, such as processing delays, incomplete information, and confusion among states about which records they were required to submit to NICS. For instance, 25 states have computerized only 60 percent of their criminal records, according to a report by the Legal Community Against Violence, a legal-services organization in San Francisco dedicated to ending gun violence. That means 40 percent of felony convictions in these states don't make it into the federal database system right away.

But the biggest problems are associated with domestic-violence and mental-health records. Thirteen states simply do not share information about domestic-violence restraining orders, and 33 states have not computerized or do not share records about mental-health adjudications, as required by the federal law.

There are also inconsistencies between state and federal law, which became tragically apparent recently in Virginia. The gunman at Virginia Tech, Seung-Hui Cho, had been ordered by a judge to get mental help. Under federal law, that would automatically disqualify him from buying a gun. But Virginia law requires that a person be committed before he or she is disqualified from buying a gun. As a result, Mr. Cho's mental adjudication was never entered into the NICS system, and he was able to buy two semiautomatic pistols.

For many in Congress, it was one too many examples of NICS not doing what it was originally intended to do.

"The NRA has an interest in seeing to it that the law works, as do I," said Dingell in a phone interview. "To have the law work … we have to separate the people who should be eligible to buy a firearm from those who are not. That's what the NICS system is supposed to do."

Some gun-control advocates are concerned that the legislation doesn't require buyers in private gun sales to undergo background checks. Calls for comment about the compromise to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence went unanswered as of this writing. It is unclear whether the organization will support the bill.

The Violence Policy Center, a gun-control think tank in Washington, has come out against the compromise because it is concerned the appeals process will make it easier for dangerous individuals to get access to guns.

Gun Owners of America (GOA), the NRA's smaller rival, is also opposed to the compromise, saying that the appeals process is too cumbersome.

"We are opposed to requiring honest people to prove their innocence," says Erich Pratt, communications director of the GOA. "Even with the compromise … these people are still presumed guilty, and they're going to have to spend time and money to prove their innocence [before buying a gun]."

The NRA, which negotiated provisions that make it easier to appeal to have one's name removed from the NICS database, says it will support the bill as long as it is passed as negotiated.

"But if there are any gun-control amendments added, we will unequivocally oppose it," says Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA's director of public affairs.

Dingell says he hopes to use procedural maneuvers to ensure the bill cannot be amended. He's determined that it passes as is.

"We'll pull the house down if it goes bad," he says.

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