WASHINGTON (AFP) — The US Congress has approved the first major gun control legislation in more than a decade, broadening background checks for gun buyers in the wake of a deadly campus shooting earlier this year by a mentally ill student.
The legislation approved Wednesday by the Senate provides government funds to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the main way gun purchases are monitored in America.
It also allocates funds for gun owners and potential gun owners who are prevented from owning weapons due to mental illness so that they may challenge the ruling in court.
Existing laws prevent mentally ill people and convicted felons from legally owning firearms, but many states lack the funds to keep their information up to date and report it to the NICS.
The measure, the first gun legislation approved since 1994, passed by voice vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives.
"A credible... federal database to provide accurate background checks benefits everyone," said Senator Patrick Leahy, one of the co-sponsors of a bill that arose following the deadliest campus shooting in US history.
Improving the background check system and culling erroneous records "will help curb the number of firearms that get into the hands of troubled individuals," Leahy said.
In April, a mentally deranged gunman shot and killed 31 people and then himself at Virginia Tech university in the United States, sparking widespread calls for tighter gun control laws.
The shooter, South Korea-born Seung Hui-Cho, 23, an English major, bought two handguns even after police and professors recognized that he was mentally disturbed.
The campus shooting "made it clear" that the background check system for potential gun buyers "needs to have better information, better technology, and clearer standards," said Representative John Dingell, a Democrat who co-authored the bill that passed the House in June.
The measure, which added a number of changes after the House version passed, was supported by the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA), and now awaits President George W. Bush's signature to become law.
"The end product is a win for American gun owners," the NRA said in a statement, describing the measure as "pro-gun legislation."
A number of safeguards were built into the legislation so that people who have "overcome a disqualifying mental illness or disability may reclaim their rights" of gun ownership through federal "relief from disabilities programs."
The NRA pointed out that the bill "prevents use of federal 'adjudications' that consist only of medical diagnoses without findings that the people involved are dangerous or mentally incompetent.
"This would ensure that purely medical records are never used in NICS. Gun ownership rights would only be lost as a result of a finding that the person is a danger to themselves or others, or lacks the capacity to manage his own affairs," the gun lobby said in a statement.
Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, which advocates tighter gun control, said this shows that the legislation was "hijacked by the gun lobby and would now do far more harm than good.
"Rather than focusing on improving the current laws prohibiting people with certain mental health disabilities from buying guns, the bill... will waste millions of taxpayer dollars restoring the gun privileges of persons previously determined to present a danger to themselves or others," Rand said.
"Once a solution, the bill is now part of the problem," she said.
However another gun control group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, urged Bush to sign the measure.
"Every day that passes until this legislation becomes law, dangerous people will go into gun stores and not be blocked from buying deadly weapons, thus putting lives at risk," the group said in a statement.
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