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Legal loophole gives mentally ill access to guns

Story Highlights

• Federal law bars someone of Seung-Hui Cho's background from buying firearms
• The federal government relied on Virginia to provide the information
• Under Virginia law alone, Cho was not prohibited from buying a gun
• Only 22 states, including Virginia, put any mental-status entries into the database
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BLACKSBURG, Virginia (CNN) -- When a judge deemed Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho a danger to himself due to mental illness in 2005, that ruling should have disqualified him from buying a handgun under federal law.

It didn't.

And his slaughter of 32 people last week has raised questions about the efficacy of instant background checks for firearms purchases by the mentally ill. (Watch how the law failed Video)

Under federal law, anyone who has been judged to be a danger to himself or others because of mental illness, as Cho was, should be prohibited from buying a gun. (Watch campus shooting rekindle debate on gun control Video)

His status should have been noted in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a database of people disqualified from gun purchases.

But, in Cho's case, his mental status never went in the system.

A deadly information gap

That's because the federal government relied on Virginia to provide the information, and Virginia law disqualifies a person from buying firearms only if they have been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. (Read the judge's order)

Cho was ordered to undergo outpatient treatment, but he was never committed. His appearance before the judge and his evaluation at a mental health facility did not show up when he bought the guns. (Read full story)

So Virginia never reported him, and he was not flagged in a background check.

Virginia Attorney General Robert McDonnell concedes that "the gap is clearly there in the state and federal law."

"We're taking a good look at whether the federal law would have been an absolute disqualifier," McDonnell said on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."

He said state law may need to be changed to meet federal requirements.

Cho cheated system

Ironically, although Virginia law created a loophole for Cho, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says Virginia is actually one of the best performing states when it comes to entering mental status of persons into the background check system.

In fact, only 22 states, including Virginia, put any mental-status entries into the federal database. The remaining states cite costs and privacy concerns as reasons they don't.

But even if Virginia had put Cho in the database, he could still have sidestepped the background check by buying his firearms from a private seller or at a gun show from a "private" individual or "collector."

Those types of transactions account for about half of the guns sold in the United States each year.

In Virginia, a person 21 or older can buy only one handgun a month, unless he has a license to buy more.

Cho bought one gun, a .22-caliber pistol, in early February and another, a 9 mm pistol, in March.

He apparently bought the .22-caliber weapon from an out-of-state dealer.

Under federal law, a weapon purchased from an out-of-state dealer must be shipped to an in-state, federally licensed gun dealer, who runs a background check. The buyer must appear in person to pick up the gun, and the dealer receives a small fee -- usually between $20 and $40 -- for facilitating the pickup.

On February 9, Cho picked up the out-of-state purchase -- a Walther P22 pistol -- from JND pawnshop across the street from campus, according to Joe Dowdy, who owns the shop. (Watch dealer recount selling weapon to Cho Video)

Cho bought a Glock 19 and 50 rounds of ammunition on March 12, staying just within the limit of one gun purchase per month, said John Markell at Roanoke Firearms in nearby Roanoke, Virginia.

Even though Cho is a resident alien, Markell said, it was legal for him to purchase a firearm, and he presented three forms of identification: a driver's license, a checkbook with an address matching the driver's license, and a resident alien card.

Cho moved to the United States from South Korea at age 8.

Clips possibly bought on eBay

Investigators are seeking records related to an e-mail and eBay account that may have been used by Cho, a source close to the investigation said. The account being checked was used last month to buy magazine clips that would fit one of the handguns used by Cho in his shooting rampage.

A CNN check of eBay transaction records online showed that the account that investigators are examining -- Blazers5505 -- was used in numerous transactions over the past several months.

Those included the March 22 purchase of two empty, 10-round magazines for a Walther P22 handgun from a company in Rigby, Idaho, that sells hunting and shooting supplies. Authorities have said one of the two handguns used by Cho was a Walther P22 pistol. (Read full story)

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story.glock.gi.jpg

A Glock 9 mm pistol, similar to one of the weapons used in the Virginia Tech slayings.

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