Yet Cho was able to purchase two weapons despite a Virginia court's determination that Cho suffered from a mental illness which placed himself and others in serious danger. And under existing federal law, that information, if it had been properly reported to that National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), would have resulted in Cho's attempted firearm purchase being denied. Moreover, had Cho lied on his firearms purchase application, a safe assumption, Cho could have faced federal criminal prosecution.
This is not a new issue. The problem lies with current reporting requirements. Federal law prohibits certain individuals from lawfully purchasing firearms, including convicted felons, those convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence or subject to a qualifying domestic violence order, drug addicts, and anyone adjudicated mentally ill or who has been committed to a mental institution.
The way the system is designed to work is simple enough. Disqualifying circumstances are supposed to be reported by the states to the FBI for inclusion in the NICS system. These "flags" are then supposed to prevent an applicant from lawfully purchasing a firearm from a licensed dealer. For the system to be effective, however, states must timely and accurately report the information necessary to generate these flags.
According to a 2004 Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, 14 states do not have the ability to access mental health records for purposes of a background check at the time of a firearm purchase. Kentucky is one of those states.
In fact, according to the BJS, Kentucky has no state agency designated for updating databases with information that an individual has been committed to a mental hospital. Moreover, while Kentucky law enforcement agencies are tasked with reporting that a criminal defendant has been found incompetent to stand trial, or adjudicated mentally ill, it is unclear as to how often and when such information is submitted.
Let there be no misunderstanding, supplying this information is complex and difficult. Full compliance is hindered by the lack of completely automated data systems and state privacy laws, but it makes little sense to enact new legislation when we can't provide the necessary information to make existing laws effective.
In 2000, the New York Times reported the results of a survey of 100 rampage shootings. In the prior ten years, the vast majority of shootings involved killers with a history of serious mental health issues, eight of whom had previously been involuntarily committed. Yet despite empirical evidence which supports a link between rampage violence and pre-existing mental illness, only a tiny fraction of attempted firearms purchases are rejected because of mental health issues.
It seems in the wake of every horrific rampage shooting, our political leadership pledges to address the deficiencies in our existing statutes. Yet promises are not enough.
At least one Kentucky multi-disciplinary committee has been examining this issue in the context of timely reporting domestic violence orders and convictions, but renewed efforts on a statewide level must be directed at providing timely information for every disqualifying "flag", especially those involving mental illness.