Since that campus tragedy, a measure that provides funds for initiatives that make mental health records more readily available, made its way through Congress and hit the books last month, after President Bush signed it into law. But police and gun control supporters worry it might take a long time to implement the new provisions — if it ever happens.
"Bureaucracies generally don't like to take on new activities. And what we've been finding, so far, in talking to various states is, everyone's pointing the finger, saying, 'That's not my job, we haven't done that before,'" Helmke said.
Thirty-two states provide some mental health records for federal background checks on handgun purchases — meaning the remaining 18 don't provide any, often citing the expense, and time-consuming nature of such an undertaking, or patient privacy concerns.
The states that do contribute records have added 402,000 files to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS.
The system allows gun dealers to call a toll-free number to submit customer information to be checked against the database. In most cases, dealers get a response within 30 seconds.
The NICS database has more than doubled since the Virginia Tech shootings; two weeks before the incident, on April 1, 2007, it contained 165,778 records from 22 states.
But the federal government cannot compel states to turn in the records, and critics point out that the majority of the records currently in the system came from only three states: Virginia, California and Michigan together contributed about 368,000 records to the catalog.
Yet with recent increases in the number of records, the database still only contains a fraction of what's filed in courts across the nation.
Helmke said 25 percent of felony records, and 80 percent to 90 percent of mental health records are missing from the system.
"With the passage of the Brady bill in 1993, we now do a background check. But the background check is only as good as the records that the states send into the system," Helmke said.
"Most states do a lousy job of sending those records in, and we allow other loopholes, like, that you can buy this with or without a background check at a gun show," he continued. "With that sort of system, we really don't have much of a restriction on keeping dangerous people from buying guns."