States have doubled the number of mental health records submitted to the FBI's background-check system since the Virginia Tech shooting last April, in a stepped up effort to keep mentally disturbed individuals from purchasing firearms.
At the time of the Virginia Tech shootings, in which a student with a history of mental health problems shot and killed 32 students and faculty members before turning a gun on himself, 22 states submitted mental-health information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, for a total of 174,863 mental health records.
The Justice Department announced Thursday that there are now 32 states submitting information, with 393,957 records in the NICS' Mental Defective File.
Gun dealers can call a toll-free number to submit customer information to the FBI before selling a firearm; the Bureau then checks the NICS to ensure the customer doesn't have mental health problems, a criminal background, a warrant for arrest or any other issue that would prevent him or her from purchasing such a weapon. Knowlingly selling a weapon to someone on the list could lead to a loss of a federal firearms license, fines and a prison term.
NICS is designed to respond within 30 seconds, in most cases.
The entry of mental health records increased following the deadly campus shooting, after which investigators found that the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, had been treated for mental health issues.
After professors noted that Cho had produced very violent works for writing classes and had been linked to a series of stalking incidents in December 2005, police took Cho to a mental health center, where a social worker determined that he presented a danger to himself or others.
The investigation later determined that Cho did not require involuntary hospitalization.
U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, in prepared remarks to be delivered Thursday before the National Association of Attorneys General annual meeting in Park City, Utah, said, "We learned in the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the checks must be accurate and complete to be effective."
"We're making progress, and I hope that even more states will submit this information so that the national instant background check system can be maximally effective," he said.
According to Justice Department officials, the mental-health records will only place prohibitions on an individual's purchase of a firearm if a court or state board or commission has determined the person is mentally troubled. The privacy of individuals who seek counseling or therapy is not included in reports to the NICS system. And the FBI said it conducts audits to ensure that the records are accurate.
While 32 states currently submit mental-health prohibitions to NICS, some states have statutes and laws that require a court order to allow sharing of mental-health data. According to two Justice Department officials, 10 additional states are considering legislation and laws to provide information to NICS.
The heads of the Justice Department, as well as the heads of the Departments of Health and Human Services and Education, recommended to President Bush in June that more be done to have states provide more information to the NICS system.
In a report on the Virginia Tech tragedy, the department heads recommended the Justice Department "work with states to provide appropriate guidance on policies and procedures that would ensure that relevant and complete information is available for background checks."
Mukasey, making his first trip outside the Washington area as the new attorney general said, "Instant background checks are essential to keeping guns out of the wrong hands, while still protecting the privacy of our citizens."