By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The mass shooting at a Washington military base shows the United States needs a better way to check whether gun buyers have mental health problems, President Barack Obama said on Tuesday.
Obama made the comments as more details emerged about Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old government contractor who is suspected of killing 12 people in a shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday before police killed him in a gun battle.
"Initial reports indicate that this is an individual who may have had some mental health problems," Obama told Spanish-language network Telemundo.
"The fact that we do not have a firm enough background check system is something that makes us more vulnerable to these kinds of mass shootings."
Rhode Island police had warned the Navy last month that Alexis had complained about "hearing voices."
Using a valid entry pass on Monday, Alexis entered the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters with a shotgun, legally purchased in Virginia, and gained access to a handgun after he started firing, Valerie Parlave, the FBI's assistant director in charge in Washington told reporters.
Obama made tougher gun laws a priority early this year after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in December.
But Congress rejected his proposals to restrict sales of certain types of guns and a measure that would have closed a loophole and required background checks for more types of sales, such as those that take place at gun shows.
Those measures were fought by gun rights lobbying groups, which said they would infringe on people's constitutional rights.
By law, people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital or have been found by a court to have a serious mental illness are barred from buying guns.
But many states do not report mental health information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, which is used by gun dealers to check potential buyers.
Obama has said he wants to see states contribute more names to the database, but mental health advocates have said that could discourage people from seeking treatment.
White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged earlier on Tuesday that expanded background checks would not have stopped the suspect in the Navy Yard shooting.
"We all should understand that there's no piece of legislation or executive action that alone can resolve this problem or prevent all violent acts from happening in the future," Carney told reporters.
Obama told Telemundo he has taken steps "within my control" to make gun laws tougher, but said Congress needs to pass new laws.
He also deflected criticism for giving a speech about the economy shortly after the shooting.
"Congress has a lot of work to do right now. We don't have a budget that's passed," Obama said.
"And I think it's very important for us to understand the urgency that we need to see out of Congress."
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)