By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Spurred by the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history, the Democratic-led House of Representatives is expected to approve a bill to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, lawmakers said on Tuesday.
The legislation -- which the House is to take up on Wednesday -- was drafted in consultation with the 4-million-member National Rifle Association, the country's biggest gun rights group, after a deranged gunman killed 32 others and himself in April at Virginia Tech University.
The NRA generally fights legislation that restricts gun ownership.
Negotiators reached agreement in recent days on the measure, which would be the first major gun control bill enacted into law since 1994. It would provide financial incentives for states to provide mental health and criminal records to a data base used for federal background checks on gun buyers.
"It's going to pass," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat and a chief sponsor of the bill, echoing the sentiment of many on Capitol Hill. "It's a good deal, and it's going to save lives."
Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, agreed -- provided lawmakers do not try to attach a lot of other gun control amendments to it.
"We've always been vigilant about protecting the (gun) rights of law-abiding citizens, but we have been equally vigilant about keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and mental defectives and other people who shouldn't have them," LaPierre said in a telephone interview.
'PREDICT IT WILL PASS'
"If this bill is kept in its present form, I predict it will pass the House and Senate and be signed into law" by President George W. Bush, LaPierre said.
"But if they turn it into a gun-control wish list, we will withdraw our support," LaPierre said, adding he believes such a sweeping measure would be rejected.
"I think chances are very good this will pass," said a Senate Republican aide said.
McCarthy and Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, who is a former NRA board member, began conferring with the NRA shortly after the Virginia Tech shootings.
The two lawmakers unveiled details of the legislation at a closed-door meeting of their Democratic colleagues on Tuesday.
Congress has long been reluctant to tackle the politically explosive issue of gun control. Lawmakers acted after it was disclosed that a judge earlier had deemed the Virginia Tech gunman as dangerous, but the information never reached a background check system for gun buyers.
The 1968 Gun Control Act prohibits anyone adjudicated to be "a mental defective" from possessing a gun. It also bars eight other groups, including felons, fugitives, drug addicts and wife abusers.
But because of state privacy laws and fiscal restraints, most states have failed to fully report such records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The effort has draw bipartisan support but some mental health groups warn it would discourage the mentally ill from seeking help and fail to take into consideration that people can be cured.