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N.C. bill would limit gun purchases

Winston-Salem Journal, N.C.

State legislators have approved a plan to prevent the purchase of guns by people who have been deemed dangerously mentally ill.

The plan is a response to the Virginia Tech shootings of April 2007. It requires the state to report to an FBI database the names of people who are found by the court system to be so mentally ill that they pose a threat to themselves or others. The database is used by gun sellers to determine if someone is ineligible to own a gun.

The bill, Senate Bill 2081 — which the House passed unanimously yesterday, after similar action by the Senate last week — now goes to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature.

“We clearly do not want guns being in the hands of dangerous people, whether they have a mental illness or not,” said John Tote, a mental-health advocate in Raleigh.

With the bill, North Carolina joins many other states that have tightened rules for background checks in response to the shootings at Virginia Tech. The shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, had been declared by a judge in late 2005 to be mentally ill and an imminent danger to himself. After a brief stay at a psychiatric hospital, Cho was ordered to receive psychological counseling, but no one monitored him.

Under federal law, that mental-health history should probably have disqualified Cho from buying a gun. But his name was never entered into the FBI database, and he was able to buy two semiautomatic pistols and high-capacity ammunition magazines. He used those weapons to kill 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech before killing himself.

A review after the rampage made clear that many states have done a poor job of reporting mental-health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Congress then passed a law that clarified what records states must report and providing money to help them do so.

The bill that passed the General Assembly yesterday is in line with the federal law. It also provides a judicial procedure for people to prove that they are no longer dangerous in order to have their names removed from the database.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper sought the bill and worked on it with the legislature. “We all want to keep the kinds of tragic shootings we've seen at places like Virginia Tech from happening here in North Carolina,” he said in a statement. “Closing this loophole to prevent the dangerously mentally ill from buying guns will help make our schools and communities safer.”

North Carolina law on involuntary commitments differs from Virginia law. In Virginia, after being deemed a danger to himself, Cho was ordered to undergo outpatient counseling.

In North Carolina, that should not happen. In this state, anyone who is found to pose a danger “to self or others” is supposed to be committed to inpatient treatment at a psychiatric hospital.

It was unclear yesterday how many people each year are involuntarily committed because they are found to be dangerously mentally ill. Tote, who is the executive director of the Mental Health Association in North Carolina Inc., said that the number is not very high and that the majority of such patients pose a danger chiefly to themselves, not to others.

Some advocates for gun-ownership rights opposed earlier versions of the bill. But after several provisions were rewritten, the state's leading gun-rights group, Grass Roots North Carolina, dropped its opposition. F. Paul Valone, the group's president, said he was neutral on the bill because it goes no further than what federal law requires states to report, adding that he does not think it will make people any safer.