Since the Virginia Tech shootings last spring, the FBI has more than doubled the number of people nationwide who are prohibited from buying guns because of mental health problems, reports the Washington Post. Justice Department officials said the FBI’s “Mental Defective File” has jumped from 175,000 names in June to nearly 400,000, primarily because of additions from California. The names are listed in a subset of a database that gun dealers are supposed to check before completing sales. The surge in names underscores the size of the gap in FBI records that allowed Seung Hui Cho to purchase the handguns he used to kill 32 people and himself at the Virginia Tech campus.
For nearly four decades, federal law has prohibited gun sales to people judged to be “mentally defective,” but enforcement has been haphazard. A 1995 Supreme Court ruling barred forcing states to provide the data, and 18 states provide no mental health-related information to the FBI. Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the most optimistic estimates suggest that even the FBI’s expanded list is missing 4 of 5 Americans who have been ruled mentally dangerous to themselves or others. House Democrats agreed this year with the National Rifle Association on legislation to encourage states to submit timely background-check data to the FBI, by offering monetary awards and threatening penalties. The House passed it, but it stalled in the Senate because of a hold by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK). He opposes the bill because he thinks its implementation would cost too much and because it lacks a mechanism to challenge inclusion on the list.