WASHINGTON -- Even as lawmakers look for ways to curb gun violence, the federal government and various states havent sent millions of mental-health and drug abuse records to the database thats designed to keep firearms from people who are barred from owning them, according to recent studies.
A host of logistical problems including concerns about violating privacy, misunderstandings about which records should be submitted and a lack of money and training has left the National Instant Criminal Background Check System without the information thats necessary to prevent guns from ending up in dangerous hands.
Requiring backgrounds checks on all gun purchases is one of several steps Congress has been debating since the shocking murder of 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Conn., just before Christmas. But even if that becomes law, it wont solve a serious but little-discussed problem: The database is incomplete.
Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech senior behind the worst school shooting in the nations history, was able to purchase a pair of semi-automatic pistols that he used to kill 32 people on campus in April 2007 because he passed a federal background check. Thats because the state of Virginia didnt submit a crucial piece of information: that a court had earlier ordered Cho to seek treatment for mental illness.
Virginia quickly passed a law requiring that type of data to be sent. The federal government cant mandate that states submit records to the background check database, although, like Virginia, the states may require themselves to do so. But as of October 2011, 23 states and the District of Columbia each had sent fewer than 100 mental health records to the database, according to a report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of more than 900 mayors co-chaired by New Yorks Michael Bloomberg, a leading gun-control advocate.
Fifty-two out of 61 federal agencies, which are required to send the information, did not, the report says.
Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said he was reluctant to talk about the limitations of the database because he didnt want to diminish the importance of the bill that would require checks for all gun sales.
A perfect . . . system is still imperfect without background checks on all sales, he said.
The White House and Department of Justice didnt respond to requests for comments.
The Senate Judiciary Committee tried to correct some of the flaws in the background-check system this week, requiring scrutiny of all sales, private and commercial. The bill passed, but without any Republican support, after Democrats refused to exempt sales between family members and close friends. It does include additional incentives for states, including $400 million over four years, to share information.
Gun control advocates say that 40 percent of gun sales dont undergo background checks. But the numbers come from a 19-year-old poll that examined gun ownership in the country and are ambiguous, and possibly inaccurate.
A new McClatchy-Marist poll released this week found that 84 percent of Americans support background checks for private gun sales and those at gun shows, with broad support from Democrats, independents and Republicans alike.
National Rifle Association President David Keene said recently that the background check system was flawed and he doubted an expansion would improve the situation.