Cho Nearly Landed on List of Those Banned From Buying Guns

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Note: This article was originally reported Wednesday evening. It has been updated this morning with new information from the FBI.

Despite being temporarily detained at a mental health facility in 2005, Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui's name was not added to the federal database meant to prevent the mentally ill from obtaining handguns because he was never formally committed to the facility, U.S. News's Will Sullivan has learned.

Following accusations of stalking by two female students against Cho and concerns he might be suicidal, campus officials obtained a "temporary detention order" for him on Dec. 13, 2005, from a Virginia magistrate, citing concerns that he "presents an imminent threat to [him]self or others." Cho was sent to Carilion St. Albans Behavioral Health Center in Radford, Va., for examination.

But the next day, a physician concluded that, while mentally ill, Cho did not present an imminent danger to others or require involuntary hospitalization. Paul M. Barnett, a special justice with the Virginia District Court in Christiansburg released him. (Page 5 of the document).

A 1968 federal law prohibits those who have been involuntarily hospitalized for mental illness from buying firearms. Because he had not been committed, Cho could legally purchase the .22-caliber and 9mm handguns he bought in February and March and used in this week's attack.

The ruling also likely kept Cho off the FBI's NICS Index, which since 1998 has listed people banned from buying firearms -- including illegal aliens, those dishonorably discharged from the military, and those involuntarily committed for mental illness. The names of people who were only temporarily detained for evaluation are not added to the index, said Dr. James Reinhard, commissioner of Virginia's Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation, and Substance Abuse Services.

For privacy reasons, many states have declined to provide mental health information to the FBI, and records of mental illness are spotty. But Virginia does contribute information about its residents. Licensed gun dealers, like the ones from which Cho purchased his weapons, are required to check the list before selling a handgun to an individual.

Joe Dowdy, who owns JND Pawnbrokers in Blacksburg, where Cho picked up the .22-caliber handgun, said he runs a background check on every customer who buys a gun. In this case, Dowdy said, Cho only filled out the paperwork and picked up the gun at his store, while the actual sale was made by another, out-of-state gun dealer who ran the background check.

"There was nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever," Dowdy said of Cho. "Just an ordinary person."

Even if his name had been added to the NICS Index, Cho would not necessarily have been prevented from buying a handgun. Virginia does not require background checks at gun shows.

Update: Information provided Thursday morning by the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division strongly suggests that, had Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui been involuntarily committed in March 2005, that information could have prevented Cho from passing the background check required to buy handguns at licensed gun shops.

Because of privacy concerns and legislation, only 15 states add information about residents who have been involuntarily committed for mental illness to the NICS Index, but Virginia is one of them. In fact, according to the FBI, Virginia "is the leading state in mental health defective entries for the NICS Index."

As of April 1, 2007, the state has entered 80,495 records into the NICS Index for mental health cases alone, barring those individuals from buying guns.