It took too many years and too many deaths to persuade Congress to act, but President Bush is expected to sign into law today a measure that will make it harder for people with a history of dangerous mental illness to purchase firearms. That is good news, but there is more work to be done.
The new law -- the product of a rare partnership between gun control advocates and the National Rifle Association -- addresses a glaring problem. Millions of criminal and mental health records are missing from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System used to screen gun purchasers and block sales to people who are disqualified by law from buying guns. The bill provides new financial incentives for states and localities to improve their spotty record-keeping and to share all pertinent information with the federal data system.
This important step forward owes much to the efforts of two New York Democrats: Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Carolyn McCarthy. They first tried to pass the measure in 2002, after a gunman, whose mental history should have blocked his purchase of a .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle, walked into a
That tragic crime was not enough to prod Congress to act, but last year's massacre at Virginia Tech was. The fact that the Virginia Tech shooter was allowed to buy semiautomatic pistols and high-capacity ammunition magazines, even though a court had found him to be dangerously mentally ill, sparked public outrage. It also put pressure on the N.R.A. to work with gun control proponents on legislation to plug the big gap in the background check system that helped pave the way for the deadly attack.
Having taken this much-needed step, the gun lobby should now join with gun control advocates to close another dangerous loophole: the one that permits nonlicensed dealers to sell firearms at gun shows without conducting any background check whatsoever. There is no principled reason gun show sales should be exempt, and the loophole poses a serious threat to public safety.
The N.R.A has so far successfully beaten back legislation to end the gun show loophole. It should not take another horrific attack by a mad gunman to change anyone's mind. This time the N.R.A., Congress and President Bush should do the right thing -- before more lives are needlessly lost.