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On anniversary of Virginia Tech shooting, law to close loophole hasn't accomplished much

Funding for improved access to mental health records has fallen short — just one of the gaps highlighed by Center investigation

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Virginia Tech student Kevin Sterne, who was injured in the Virginia Tech shooting, looks up at balloons released in remembrance of the victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.

Steve Helber/AP

Seung-Hui Cho had a documented history of court-ordered mental health treatment, so he should have been barred from buying the guns he used to kill 32 people at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. But five years after the shootings, a federal law designed to close the loophole Cho slipped through still hasn’t accomplished that much.

The so-called Brady Law, passed in 1993, prevented people who’d been judged mentally ill from buying firearms. Trouble is, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) established by the Brady Law hadn’t included thousands of relevant mental health records — and didn’t have any record of Cho’s treatment.

The NICS Improvement Act, signed by President George W. Bush in January 2008 — and supported by the National Rifle Association — was supposed to fix the problem by providing federal grants to help states overhaul their computer systems in order to get more mental health and other records into the NICS system. Under the 2007 law, Congress authorized $875 million over five year for this purpose, but since then only about $50 million has actually been appropriated. The results are disappointing. Published reports say two dozen states have submitted fewer than 100 mental health records to the system, and some 50 federal agencies have failed to provide records either.

A lack of access to mental health records was just one of many data gaps and loopholes that have plagued the NICS system. The litany of problems was detailed last spring by a Center for Public Integrity investigation.