Isikoff: The NRA's Take On the Cho Massacre

In his first public comments since last week’s massacre, the National Rifle Association’s top lobbyist said today that the group backs proposed new legislation designed to ensure that mentally unstable killers like Cho Seung-Hui do not gain access to firearms.

Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president, told NEWSWEEK that Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, “absolutely” should have been barred from buying a gun under current federal laws. But Lapierre nonetheless says the group is now working with longtime ally Rep. John Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, on a bill to ensure that mental-health records—such as the December 2005 court order directing Cho to receive a psychiatric evaluation—are entered into a FBI database that is used for background checks of gun buyers. Federal law does bar sales of guns to those who have been found to be mentally “defective,” but most states have a shoddy track record of reporting mental-health records to the feds.

“Our position on this is crystal clear: If you are adjudicated by a court to be mentally defective, suicidal, a danger to yourself or to others, you should be prohibited from buying a firearm,” said LaPierre, who oversees the powerful gun lobby’s political operations. “The federal law is pretty clear on this. He [Cho] should have been in the [FBI] data base.”

Immediately following the shootings last week, the NRA put out a brief statement saying that “out of the respect for the families” of the victims, it would forswear any public comments about the political implications of the tragedy. But since then, there has been a sharpening debate about whether enforcement of the gun laws should be tightened to prevent mentally unstable individuals like Cho from acquiring weapons.

The NRA’s position puts the group at odds with The Gun Owners of America, which has already launched a public campaign to block the legislation that the NRA supports, warning that the proposal could “block millions of additional, honest gun owners from buying firearms.” (The NRA boasts more than 3.5 million members; the Gun Owners group has only 300,000, but maintains clout in the Capitol disproportionate to its numbers.)

“Your Gun Rights Could Soon Hang in The Balance,” the Gun Owners group proclaimed in an “alert” message posted on its Web site this week. The alert warned that even military veterans who were found to have suffered from “post-traumatic stress” disorders could have their names entered into the database and be denied their gun rights.

The debate grew hotter still today when an official of the American Psychiatric Association denounced the proposed bill sponsored by Dingell and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, Democrat of New York. The measure would provide $1.1 billion in funding to the states and local courts systems over the next three years to computerize records of mental-health orders and commitments so they can be entered into the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a database that is used for background checks of prospective gun buyers. (Currently, only 22 states provide mental-health records to the FBI; many of those that do, such as Virginia, don’t provide complete records of all mental-health commitments and detentions.)

“This looks like an enormously expensive, extremely intrusive, extremely stigmatizing approach to a tragic situation,” Dr. Nada Stotland, vice president of the psychiatric association, the largest group representing the nation’s psychiatrists, said of the McCarthy bill. “It is unconscionable to restrict people’s civil rights because they have a medical illness.”

In his interview with NEWSWEEK, LaPierre brushed aside suggestions that measures such as the McCarthy bill constituted a new form of “gun control” as the Gun Owners of America have charged. He said the NRA, which has long been a powerful opponent of gun control, has always supported denying gun rights to those who are mentally “defective”—one of the categories of individuals who are banned from owning firearms under the 1968 Gun Control Act. (Others include felons, fugitives, and drug users.) “We’ve been there for decades on this,” said LaPierre. “We just don’t think it’s really gun control to try to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally defective.”

McCarthy told NEWSWEEK that she was pleasantly surprised to hear of the NRA’s public position, noting that an executive of the Gun Owners of America had met with House Republicans this week to gin up opposition to her measure. “I have a feeling that this is their [the NRA’s} way of showing they can be moderate,” she said. (A McCarthy aide said that when the congresswoman's staff members met with NRA lobbyists last January about her proposed measure, the NRA officials said they would not publicly support it unless language was added that would eliminate the existing ban on interstate purchases of firearms. No such language has been added, the aide said.)

Still, McCarthy said today she thought LaPierre’s public statement would buck up House Democratic leaders who have been extremely averse to any measure that might be labeled as gun control. “Their knees are shaking constantly,” McCarthy said about her party’s leaders in the House. “They are scared of anything that might be controversial on gun issues.”

McCarthy, whose husband was killed by a deranged gunman aboard the Long Island Railroad in 1993, also said that the concerns raised by the American Psychiatric Association were overstated. The NICS database controlled by the FBI is not public information—so there is little risk that mentally ill people whose names were entered into it would be “stigmatized” through public disclosure, McCarthy maintains. Moreover, she said, citizens who had been found mentally ill (and were therefore denied the right to own a gun) could also appeal the denial and present evidence that their mental health had improved. “My bottom line,” says McCarthy, “I’m sorry, is if you’re mentally ill, you should not be able to buy a gun.”