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The background check debate

Today I was assigned to act as Pete Williams' proxy in an interview with Dennis Henigan for tonight's Nightly News. The interview focuses on the impact of current gun control laws on the sale of two firearms to Seung-Hui Cho, who had previously been treated for depression and had at least on one occasion been deemed a danger to himself in a court of law.

Dennis Henigan, from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, explained that given the information released thus far, Cho would be considered an ineligible buyer under current federal gun control laws intended to keep guns out of the hands of mentally unstable individuals.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine has appointed an eight-member independent investigatory panel to look into the events surrounding last week's incident. Among the panelists is former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who appeared Sunday on "Meet the Press" [transcript]. After taping the show, Ridge answered a few questions about how the investigation might affect the way that mental health records are kept.

"After 9/11 there was a lot of concerns that there was a wall between law enforcement and intelligence," Ridge said. "Here there seems to be a wall that was built legitimately by well-intentioned people in the health care community to take care of people with mental illness and [control the transfer of] information, not necessarily to the public, but to public officials."

Although Cho may have been an ineligible buyer under federal law due to his mental health history, the "wall" between the mental health community and the law enforcement community described by Ridge prevented the gunman's history from raising any red flags. This wall, according to Henigan, may be stronger than most people think. Henigan said that the vast majority of states currently choose not to report any of their mental health records to the federal database used to perform background checks on potential gun buyers. Additionally, Henigan said that he wouldn't be surprised if many states chose not to keep centralized mental health records at all.

Despite reporting more of its mental health records to the federal government than any other state in the country, Virginia's mental health database still failed to alert the local authorities of Seung-Hui Cho's depressive history. Better communication between the mental health community and the local authorities responsible for performing Cho's background check could never have predicted Cho's homicidal plans. But now that the worst has happened, Henigan said that he hopes this tragedy will cause other states to examine their own records and the way those records are conveyed to firearm retailers.

"Right now the whole world is watching Virginia," Henigan said.