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How to Improve Background Checks in the Wake of Virginia Tech


In the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, flaws in the current National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) were exposed. The shooter was barred under federal regulations from purchasing a firearm. Unfortunately, a lapse in maintaining the mental health records allowed him to slip through the cracks and purchase two handguns.

While the horrible tragedy at Virginia Tech shed light on the failings of the current system in regards to those mentally adjudicated, we must remember that tens of thousands of convicted felons also slip through the cracks of our deeply flawed background check system each year.

Millions of criminal records are not accessible by NICS and millions others are missing critical data, such as arrest dispositions, due to data backlogs. The primary cause of delay in NICS background checks is due to funding and technology issues in the states. Many states have not automated the records concerning mental illness, restraining orders, or misdemeanor convictions for domestic violence. Simply, put, the NICS system must be updated on both the state and federal level.

According to a Third Way report, over 91% of those adjudicated for mental illness cannot be stopped by a background check due to flaws in the system. But this issue allows other barred individuals to purchase firearms. 25% of felony convictions do not make it into the NICS system.

Since April, I have been working with my good friend and colleague, Rep. John Dingell (MI-15), to ensure the language included in my National Instant Criminal Background Check Improvement (NICS) Act achieved its intended goal without compromising the right of law-abiding citizens to own firearms. Together, we have crafted a bill that will prevent gun violence, but maintain the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens.

After months of discussions and countless drafts, the product of our efforts will reach the floor of the House of Representatives. On Wednesday, the House is scheduled to debate HR 2640, the National Instant Criminal Background Check Improvement Act. This legislation, which will be the first gun violence prevention measure to pass in over a decade, will fix the loopholes that have provoked countless tragedies throughout our nation and save lives.

I came to Congress in 1997, in the wake of my own personal tragedy, to help prevent gun violence. Ten years later, I am more committed than ever to this cause. Today, with passage of the NICS Improvement Act on the horizon, we are one step closer to reducing the needless deaths from gun violence.