Virginia Previously Examined Gun Laws For Those With Mental Illnesses

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To the list of things that might have legally stopped Virginia Tech gunman Seung Hui Cho from doing what he did--or at least raised another red flag--add this: SB939, a short-lived bill introduced in the Virginia state Senate in 2003 by Charles Colgan, a Prince William County Democrat.

As we reported here last week, Cho narrowly escaped being flagged on the list of people unable to legally purchase guns in Virginia, even though a special justice deemed him an "imminent danger to himself," because he was ordered to receive outpatient treatment instead of being involuntarily institutionalized. (Being a danger to oneself flunks a person from buying guns under the federal standard.)

The bill, which Colgan introduced at the request of Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert and others and that died in committee by a 5-to-9 vote, would have elevated the state standard to prohibit gun purchases by persons voluntarily admitted to a mental health facility "if the person is mentally ill and in need of hospitalization and presents an imminent danger to self or others as a result of mental illness."

Because the current provision applies only to those who are institutionalized against their will, both Colgan and Ebert said today, it allows those who voluntarily commit themselves to maintain access to their firearms.

"Anybody that's prone to harm themselves is likely to harm themselves, and I think it should apply across the board," Ebert said.

Both Colgan and Ebert say that Cho might still have slipped under the radar, since he was assigned to outpatient treatment as an alternative to being hospitalized, but they intend to continue pushing for similar reforms to the Virginia Code.

"I think next year I'm going to address this issue. I think the bill will receive much friendlier treatment," Colgan said. "The members are going to realize these things [like the Virginia Tech incident] happen. Unfortunately, these mistakes are great teachers."

--Chris Wilson