Rules of record sharing widely misunderstood

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Educators, doctors and law enforcement officials are confused about the records they are allowed to share on potentially dangerous mental health patients such Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, a federal study released yesterday concluded.

The resulting lack of clarity can "chill legitimate information sharing," with disastrous consequences, according to the report, prepared by three Cabinet secretaries and presented to President Bush at the White House.

Bush requested the review after the April shooting rampage that claimed 33 lives on the Blacksburg, Va., campus - including that of Cho, who shot himself.

A recluse who wrote violent fiction and spurned friendships, Cho was found by a judge to be a danger to himself and others, and was ordered in 2005 to receive outpatient mental health treatment. But the courts, the campus and local police did not follow up, and the order was not included in a database used for gun background checks. Cho was able to buy two firearms before the shootings.

The 22-page study recommended no new legislation and did not address specific facts of the Virginia Tech case, but it called for stepped-up awareness campaigns for laws already on the books to help prevent future tragedies.

"Many of the things we know we need to do, we just need to do a better job of it," Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt told reporters after meeting with Bush.

In particular, the findings highlighted the need for more states to participate in a national criminal background check database maintained by the FBI.

Only 23 states provide the database with information about people who are not allowed to own or carry weapons because of mental illness, federal officials found. Virginia is one of them; Maryland's records are spotty, a different federal study found.

"All states need to understand the full scope of the existing federal laws and submit, or make accessible, appropriate information" to the National Criminal Instant Background Check System, the new report said.

Spurred by the campus shooting, the House of Representatives approved a measure yesterday that would provide states with grants to provide data more quickly to the federal system. The legislation - which supporters are calling the most significant federal gun-control measure in more than a decade - passed on a voice vote after negotiations with the National Rifle Association.

"Each year, tens of thousands of barred individuals slip through the cracks of the system and gain access to firearms," Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat who became a gun-control activist after her husband was killed by a gunman on the Long Island Railroad in 1993, said in a statement. "Simply put, the ... system must be updated on both the state and federal level."

The legislation now moves to the Senate, and Bush has not said whether he would sign the bill.

"With the findings in this report in mind, I am closely following legislative efforts to strengthen the instant background check system," Bush said.

Leavitt, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales traveled to 12 states, among them, from April 26 to May 4 and met with governors, mental health experts and law enforcement and school officials.

A common problem, they concluded, was lack of awareness of privacy laws covering education and health records.

"One of the most important things we found is that many of the obstacles are perceived," Leavitt said.

Other findings included: the need for better education so that warning signs of mental illness can be identified; better treatment services for those with mental impairments; and better implementation of existing programs.

"We've found in many states that quite elaborate plans have been developed," Leavitt said. "In Colorado, for example, after Columbine, we discovered that there were, in specific instances, checklists and plans executed, but in some cases, many of the schools still hadn't implemented them."

Evan Dreyer, a spokesman for Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., a Democrat, said in response that "while we have made significant gains in terms of school safety since Columbine, we are constantly looking for ways to improve."

Federal officials held telephone conversations with Virginia leaders but did not visit the state, which is preparing its own report on the shooting. The Virginia study is expected to be completed this fall.

"The governor looks forward to reviewing this federal report, to see if it might contain ideas that could be incorporated in our own investigation," said Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine.

A June 14 article improperly reported the findings of a Virginia special judge who in 2005 reviewed the mental health history of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho. The judge found that Cho was an imminent danger to himself because of mental illness, but not to others, as the article indicated.The Sun regrets the errors.
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