By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The deadly shooting spree in Tucson, Arizona, has renewed questions about a U.S. system that relies on personal background checks at the time of gun sales to keep firearms out of the hands of disturbed people.
Despite evidence that the suspect in Saturday's rampage, Jared Lee Loughner, engaged in bizarre, disruptive behavior well before the shooting, police said he legally purchased the gun used in the attack at a sporting goods store.
"The troubles of the Tucson shooter are more proof that we make it too easy for dangerous and irresponsible people to get guns in this country," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Federal law bars possession of firearms by anyone found by a court or other legal authority to be a danger to themselves or others. Convicted felons, fugitives and people with a record of drug addiction also are banned from owning guns.
There has been no evidence that Loughner, who has been accused of gravely wounding a congresswoman and killing six bystanders on Saturday, had ever been formally judged to be mentally ill. But even if he had been, the former college student might have passed a background check when screened for his gun purchase.
SLOW FURNISHING RECORDS
That is because many states, including Arizona, have been slow in furnishing mental health records to the FBI database used in flagging prospective gun buyers prohibited from owning firearms.
U.S. Justice Department figures show that just a tiny fraction -- less than one percent -- of individuals denied a gun purchase nationwide since the system went into effect in 1998 were disqualified for psychiatric reasons.
State privacy laws have been cited as a chief impediment to greater sharing of mental health records, though experts say the situation has improved since enactment of a law in 2008 to bolster the screening network.
"The background check system is only as good as the records in it, and there are holes still in the system. But it's definitely better than before," said Jim Kessler, a policy executive and co-founder of the Washington think tank Third Way.
In yet another loophole of the system, federal law and most states require no background checks for individuals who buy a weapon from private sellers at gun shows.
Loughner, 22, purchased a semi-automatic Glock pistol -- the gun used in Saturday's shooting -- from a licensed gun dealer in Tucson in late November, authorities said.
Asked whether a history of erratic behavior had come to light when Loughner was screened for his gun purchase, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said on Sunday, "I do not know the answer to that question."
Now charged with the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Loughner has emerged as a profoundly troubled young man. Dupnik described him as mentally unstable and known to have made death threats in the past.
Pima Community College said it suspended Loughner after a series of run-ins with campus police and the emergence of an online video he made that officials found "very disturbing."
But there apparently is no record of Loughner being judged as posing a danger to himself or others or being unable to manage his own affairs.
Helmke of the Brady Campaign said gun laws in Arizona, among the most permissive in the nation, make it especially easy for almost anyone to obtain a firearm.
ARIZONA'S LOOSE GUN LAWS
Arizona is one of only three states that allow residents to carry loaded, concealed guns without a special background check, and recently passed a law to allow guns in bars.
Sheriff Dupnik, too, spoke out against laws in Arizona that allow virtually "everybody in this state (to) carry weapons under any circumstances." But he also said the nation's judicial system in general has made it more difficult over the years to lock up people deemed to be a danger to society.
"Back in 1960 when I was a young cop on the beat, we put mentally ill people who were threats into a system that incarcerated them. Today they're out on the street, and we're paying a price for it," he said.
The shooting spree in Tucson on Saturday came on the third anniversary of enactment of a 2008 U.S. law designed to boost efforts at preventing dangerously mentally ill people from obtaining guns.
Passage of that bill to strengthen the background check system was prompted when a deranged gunman killed himself and 32 others in April 2007 at Virginia Tech University -- the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history.
It turned out that the Virginia Tech shooter, university student Seung-Hui Cho, had been judged an "imminent danger" to himself and others. But that court finding was not submitted to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
Since the 2008 measure to bolster the system became law, the number of records entered in the FBI registry of people deemed by courts to be dangerously mentally ill has more than doubled to about 1 million.
But that tally is still less than half of the total number of people -- over 2 million -- estimated to have been so adjudicated in the United States, the Brady Campaign says.
Arizona, for example, has submitted more than 4,400 names of persons ineligible to buy guns due to mental illness since 2008, a fraction of the nearly 122,000 estimated to have been officially judged dangerously mentally ill in the state since 1989, according to figures compiled by the Brady Campaign.
(Editing by Greg McCune and David Storey)