WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday responded to the deadliest shooting rampage in modern American history by passing legislation to help keep guns out of hands of the mentally ill.
On a voice vote, the House sent the measure — which would be the first major gun control bill enacted since 1994 and bolster background checks for gun buyers — to the Democratic-led Senate for needed concurrence.
The bill was drafted in consultation with the 4 million-member National Rifle Association, the nation’s biggest gun-rights group, after a deranged gunman killed himself and 32 others in April at Virginia Tech university.
“I think the chances are very strong that we can get this passed in the Senate,” said Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, provided the legislation is not laden with amendments that gun rights backers find objectionable.
There was no immediate word from the White House if President George W. Bush, who supports gun rights, would sign the measure into law.
“We are following the legislation closely and are supportive of Congress’s efforts to strengthen the background check system,” said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel.
The legislation would provide financial incentives for states to provide mental health and criminal records to a data base used for federal background checks on gun buyers.
The 1968 Gun Control Act prohibits anyone found by a court to be “a mental defective” from possessing a gun. It also bars felons, fugitives, drug addicts and wife beaters.
But because of state privacy laws and fiscal restraints, most states have failed to fully report such records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
A new report issued by administration agencies on Wednesday showed that only 23 states now provide information to the national database regarding mental health reasons.
Americans are among the world’s most heavily armed people, and the country has one of the highest murder rates.
There are an estimated 250 million privately owned guns in the United States, which has a population of about 300 million. About 30,000 people a year die from gun wounds.
Congress has long been reluctant to tackle the politically explosive issue of gun control. But some lawmakers acted after it was disclosed that the Virginia Tech gunman had once been deemed by a judge to be dangerous and the information never reached a background check system for gun buyers.
Democratic Reps. Carolyn McCarthy of New York, who was elected on a campaign of tougher gun laws after he husband was killed by a gunman on a commuter train, and John Dingell of Michigan, a former NRA board member, crafted the bill with the help of the NRA.
The NRA, which has long worked with conservative Republicans in opposing tougher gun laws, urged House members to back the bill.
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Caren Bohan