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Congress to revisit background checks for gun buyers

Supporters of reform legislation hope it has a better likelihood of passing this year, with the change in congressional leadership and the tragedy at Virginia Tech.

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The Virginia Tech shooting has brought to light serious inadequacies in the nation's background-check system for gun purchases and has prompted renewed calls to fix it.

Many legal experts now agree that shooter Cho Seung-hui should not have been able to buy a gun at a federally licensed shop because in 2005 a judge had ruled that he was mentally ill and ordered him to seek treatment.

Federal law states that any person "adjudicated as a mental defective" is prohibited from buying firearms.

But Mr. Cho's name was not flagged by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) because his name wasn't in it. Virginia officials didn't report the judge's ruling on his mental illness to NICS: They were following a state law that says a person has to be committed to an institution before being prohibited from buying a gun.

Federal law-enforcement officials and gun-violence experts say such communication breakdowns, as well as a significant lack of federal resources to keep NICS current, have resulted in a background-check system that is incomplete, inaccurate, and out of date.

A bill to reform the system has stalled in Congress in the past few years. But its sponsors hope that this year, with the change in leadership and the tragedy in Virginia, the bill will have a better likelihood of passing.

"Our purpose is simply to see to it that if we have an instant background check, that it in fact works. There are significant problems with it, and not only in Virginia," says Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, a former member of the National Rifle Association's board of directors. "We're not putting the money into it, the states aren't putting the effort into it, and there is neither the carrot nor the stick to the degree that there should be to require that the records be properly kept."

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