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A Million Lines of Defense Against Tragedy

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On January 7, we wrote a blog tied to the third anniversary of the NICS Improvement Law, passed to improve our background check system and ensure more disqualifying mental health records made it into the system. The next day, the mass shooting in Tucson happened. That shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was of questionable mental health and was still able to pass a background check. Despite being too dangerous for college and having been rejected by the army following a failed drug test, Loughner was not considered too dangerous to own a gun in this country. We have spent the past few days tortured by our knowledge of what the Tucson shooting victims and their families are going through. Here is the blog we had written about our own experiences with the failure of our country's gun laws to effectively keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

It could have been - and should have been - impossible for Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, to buy his two guns the way he did. He wasn't forced to the "black market", but rather, he walked into a gun store and sat down at his computer, cleared two background checks, and easily became armed and dangerous. We learned this truth within days of the tragedy, and by the end of that year, we, dozens of other grieving families, and the Brady Campaign, succeeded in convincing Congress to pass a law to improve some of the weaknesses in the background check system that allowed the events of April 16, 2007 to proceed.

Three years ago this month, President George W. Bush signed the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Act into law. Now more than one million mental health records belonging to dangerous people who should not be allowed to possess guns are in the background check system.

This is a major milestone. It's the kind of progress that needs to happen if we're serious about protecting Americans from gun violence.

Cho was a very disturbed young man who had a long history of mental health problems. His final suicidal outburst, which ended the lives of 32 people and injured 17 others, including Colin, shone a harsh spotlight on the serious deficiencies in Virginia's mental health care system and in those of nearly every state and territory of the U.S.

Like other states, the Virginia mental health system had been chronically under-funded despite ever-increasing demands and many worthy efforts to improve and enhance it.

After the Tech massacre, the Virginia General Assembly took note of the recommendations of the governor's review panel, which had been set up to examine the root causes of the tragedy and put in place new laws and new funding to improve the mental health system. However, circumstances have conspired to limit the effectiveness of those changes. The recession led to back-to-back cuts in state funds for mental health (15 percent in 2009 and again in 2010). This year there could be more cuts, up to 6 percent. The result is that four years after Virginia Tech - the worst school shooting in American history -- Virginia is spending significantly less money on mental health care than it was before the tragedy.

On the other hand, Virginia has always been one of the best states for sending disqualifying mental health judgment data to the NICS system and things got even better after Virginia Tech. But the rate at which most other states report mental health disqualification data to the NICS system is still woefully inadequate.

When Congress passed the NICS Improvement Act, it hoped to give states a financial incentive to enhance their systems of reporting. Too many states, such as Indiana, had not submitted a single mental health record to NICS. Last fall, nearly $20 million was released for the effort. While there are more than a million records now in the NICS Index, we haven't finished the job. Based on responses from 42 of 56 U.S. states and territories, the National Center for State Courts and SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, estimate that more than 2 million disqualifying mental illness records should be in the NICS Index.

Since its passage, the Brady background check system has stopped dangerous people more than 1.9 million times from purchasing guns. But if the majority of people who have been judged to be ineligible to buy guns due to serious mental health problems can still pass background checks because of missing data, that represents a huge hole in the safety net. Can we as a nation accept that a simple clerical procedure stands between increased public safety and us?

Mental illness is a disease that needs to be treated. Until it becomes commonplace to make appropriate treatment widely available for people with serious mental health problems, and until we understand that gun ownership requires a level of knowledge, skill and self-control that is beyond the capability of certain individuals, we, very sadly, should not be surprised if more incidents like Virginia Tech keep happening.

We Americans seem to celebrate freedom more than responsibility. But the two go hand-in-hand, not just for people who would do us harm, but for every American whose birthright is the ability to raise a voice in political affairs.

We may not want to be our brother's keeper, but how many of us want to make it easy for him to be an executioner?