Coburn Stalls Virginia Tech Gun Bill

Bipartisan bill closes mental illness loophole but one senator holds it up.

ByABC News
October 16, 2007, 2:52 PM

Oct. 16, 2007— -- It's been six months since the mentally disturbed Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 classmates and himself in Blacksburg, Va.

Twenty family members of students killed or injured in the massacre traveled to Capitol Hill Tuesday to pressure a single senator standing in the way of bipartisan legislation aimed at closing the loophole that allowed Cho to purchase a gun despite his illness.

"We just want the Senate to do its work, send this bill to the president's desk and prevent further tragedy," said Peter Read, whose daughter Mary was shot and killed in her French class at Virginia Tech.

After the Virginia Tech massacre, there seemed to be a unifying legislative principle that a loophole in the federal gun law needed to be clarified to determine which records for mental illness should be imported to the federal gun registry.

Groups as politically disparate as the National Rifle Association and the Brady Campaign agreed on the change, and Congress agreed to provide $400 million in federal funds to help states compile mental health illness information for the federal databases.

In Virginia, the Democratic governor and Republican legislature closed the loophole in the commonwealth within weeks of the shooting.

An ABC News poll after the shooting found an overwhelming 83 percent of Americans support reporting mentally ill people to a federal database.

Seung-Hui Cho, after all, walked through this very loophole when he bought his Glock 19 in Roanoke in March.

While he had been referred for mental help, he had not been committed to a mental institution involuntarily. This bill would clear up such discrepancies.

But Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., stands in the way.

He has concerns about the privacy implications of the bill, particularly for veterans returning from war, who he said may be unfairly tagged as having mental problems.

Arguments that there is an adjudication process for those who have been treated for mental illness to be taken off the federal registry do not allay him. And Coburn, who opposes most spending bills, also balks at the $400 million the Senate wants to give states to help them comply.

There was no official response from Sen. Coburn to the Virginia Tech families targeting him today, but his office did provide ABC with a letter Sen. Coburn wrote today to the acting director of the Department of Veterans Affairs that explains his position.

Coburn points to a government study that estimates 140,000 veterans have been referred to the government's federal gun registry since 1998 without their knowledge. Coburn says the general counsel for the Department of Veterans Affairs told him the veterans are referred not because they pose a threat to themselves and others, as the law stipulates, but because they cannot handle their own finances. It is both the implication of the Virginia Tech law for veterans and the money it spends that has led Coburn to stand in the way of the bill.

"I am certainly understanding of the fact that some veterans could be debilitated to the point that such cataloguing is necessary, but we should ensure this process does not entangle the vast majority of our combat veterans who simply seek to readjust to normal life at the conclusion of their tours. I am troubled by the prospect of veterans refusing necessary treatment and the benefits they are entitled to. As I'm sure you would agree we cannot allow any stigma to be associated with mental healthcare or treatment of Traumatic Brain Injury," Coburn wrote to acting Veterans Secretary Gordon Mansfield.