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When does a state disarm the mentally ill?

Story Highlights

• Virginia debates whether mentally ill should be forced into treatment
• Virginia governor mulls executive order to close gun loophole
• Federal law bars sale of guns to people judged mentally ill
• Commission has until October to make recommendation for new law
By Drew Griffin
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia (CNN) -- The shootings at Virginia Tech last week have renewed focus on gun control, specifically in cases of the mentally ill. The question at issue: When does a state have the right to intervene, ultimately determining whether a resident is mentally fit to bear arms?

It is a question that Virginia was already considering before Seung-Hui Cho carried out the nation's deadliest shooting last Monday, when the Virginia Tech senior killed 32 people on campus before killing himself.

Virginia's governor also says he is now willing to consider an executive order that would close the loophole that allowed Cho to legally purchase his weapons.

Six months before the shootings, a group of mental health experts in the state began debating whether the state should force the mentally ill into treatment even if they are not an "imminent threat" to themselves or others.

It is a question being asked by the state of Virginia and just a handful of other states which have very restrictive guidelines on who can be forced into treatment. Under federal law, anyone who has been judged to be a danger to himself or others because of mental illness, as Cho was, is prohibited from buying a gun.

Mary Zdanowicz, the executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center and a member of the state's Commission on Mental Health Reform, has been encouraging her fellow panel members to support changes in the law that would lower the threshold for involuntary commitment.

Cho's case, she says, points out just how inadequate the current guidelines are. It was December 2005 when Cho first came in contact with the system after he was accused of stalking. After a friend told police he might be suicidal, Cho was ordered to temporary detention.

The next day, a judge ruled him mentally ill and an "imminent danger to himself." (Read judge's order)

But Cho was not forced into treatment. The 23-year-old was given the option of voluntary outpatient care. According to Zdanowicz, there was no follow-up and Cho was allowed to basically slip through the cracks untreated.

In hindsight, she says, "the experts seem to think that 'yes' he had schizophrenia." But no one diagnosed Cho at the time because Cho himself refused help.

"It doesn't appear he had any awareness he had mental illness. He believed the delusions. He believed he had a mission," Zdanowicz told CNN.

"So why would he go to a psychiatrist's for an evaluation. That's the problem with these illnesses. It affects a person's ability to recognize there is something wrong with them."

The commission has given itself until October to make recommendations on whether the laws concerning involuntary treatment of mental health patients need to be changed.

Michael Allen, an advocate for people with mental health problems, hopes the panel will take its time and not simply react to the Virginia Tech shootings with a bad law.

Allen says mental illness does not automatically lead to violence, and he fears a backlash.

"Would we go through the records of every Virginian who has ever been to the doctor concerned about anxiety and depression, and lock them up? It's simply inconsistent with the American way."

Federal law prevents the sale of guns to those who have been judged mentally ill. But in Cho's case, since he was never actually committed to a hospital, the judge's order was never entered into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a database of people disqualified from gun purchases.

So he was allowed to purchase the two handguns used in the massacre.

Meanwhile, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine told CNN Tuesday that he has asked the state attorney general to review the impact of an executive order to close the loophole that made Cho's gun purchase possible. (Read more about legal loophole)

"We may within the next few days look at a way to increase the reporting to the national database once there has been an adjudication of somebody's mental health status, if they have, in fact, been found to be mentally ill and a potential danger to others," he said.

"That would then be used not under state law, but under federal law to bar purchases of guns under some circumstances."

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


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