WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress, prodded by the deadliest shooting rampage in modern American history, passed legislation on Wednesday to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
Without objection, the Senate and House of Representatives approved the measure, which would bolster background checks for gun buyers, and sent it to President George W. Bush to sign.
The measure would be the first major new U.S. gun-control law since 1994. It was drafted after a gunman with a history of mental illness killed himself and 32 others in April at Virginia Tech university.
The product of months of talks, the bill was finally agreed to as lawmakers prepared to wrap up their work for the year and head home for the holidays.
“Together, we have crafted a bill that will prevent gun violence, but maintain the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens” to bear arms, said Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York, a chief sponsor of the bill.
McCarthy was elected to Congress in 1996, three years after her husband was killed and son injured when a gunman opened fire on a commuter train.
The 4 million-member National Rifle Association, a powerful U.S. pro-gun lobbying group that has helped stop numerous gun-control bills, backed this one.
“Everybody on both the sides of the issue of firearms’ ownership joined together,” said Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, a former NRA board member and another chief sponsor of the bill.
“Both sides recognize this as a very sensible and proper way to see to it that the law is enforced and people are protected,” Dingell told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Americans are among the world’s most heavily armed people, and the country has one of the world’s 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.
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.
Congress has long been reluctant to tackle the politically explosive issue of gun control. But it did so 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.
The legislation would provide financial incentives for states to provide mental health and criminal records to a database used for federal background checks on gun buyers.
The House initially passed such a bill in June. But the Senate refused to go along with it until changes were made. One would require the government to pay legal fees if a person who claims to have been wrongly listed in the background system wins an appeal.
The bill would also allow those found to no longer be mentally ill and a threat to be removed from the list.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said: “Nothing can bring back the lives tragically lost at Virginia Tech, and no legislation can be a panacea, but the bill we pass today will begin to repair and restore our faith in the NICS system and may help prevent similar tragedies in the future.”
Editing by Patricia Zengerle