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Josh Sugarmann

Josh Sugarmann

Posted: July 26, 2007 11:28 AM

Mental Health Gun Bill Has Hidden Problems


In June, in the wake of the Virginia Tech mass shooting, newspapers across the country hailed a "compromise" bill that would supposedly increase the number of records submitted to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the database utilized by the Brady background check system when guns are purchased from a gun dealer. In a deal brokered by former NRA-board member Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) and blessed by the National Rifle Association, a bill introduced earlier this year by gun control advocate Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) to improve the NICS was modified at the last minute and passed by the House with much fanfare and little outside analysis.

In the press, the bill was hailed as a gun control victory. The NRA was quick to tell its members -- and anyone who would listen -- that the bill was actually a pro-gun bill. As NRA head Wayne LaPierre wrote in a June 13, 2007 blog titled "Not a Gun Control Bill" --

"There's been a lot of confusion and questions surrounding NRA's position on a NICS improvement bill that's being written in Congress. Part of the confusion comes from the fact that the anti-gun media is portraying this as a `gun-control' bill. Let me make it clear: It's not.

"The NICS bill, as written, wouldn't expand the definition of a prohibited person. It wouldn't disqualify anyone currently able to legally purchase a firearm. In fact, it would provide an opportunity for people who've been disqualified to clear their name. Right now, folks don't have that ability. Gun owners lose nothing in the bill as it's currently written, and in fact the bill improves the system for those who've been caught in the bureaucratic red tape."

This was followed three days later by a second blog, "Not a Gun Control Bill, Part 2." In it, he criticized CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric's characterization of the bill, stating:

"Couric called the bill `the first major gun-control bill in over a decade.' That's baloney. This bill improves the accuracy of the NICS system, while allowing people who've been denied their right to own a firearm to get their rights restored. If anything, this bill's going to lead to MORE law-abiding gun owners, not less."

LaPierre's palpable frustration is understandable, because a closer look at the NRA-added sections raises strong concerns. So strong, that yesterday three national gun violence prevention organizations -- the Violence Policy Center (which I head), the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and the Legal Community Against Violence -- issued a press release voicing them. In the release, the three groups state that while they "strongly support the bill's goal of improving the mechanism by which mental health and other records are added to the NICS, they are concerned that components of the bill would create new loopholes for potentially dangerous individuals to possess firearms." In the release, the groups cite three key changes made to the original McCarthy bill:

  • The compromise bill creates a bifurcated system for submitting mental health records to the background check system-depending on whether the disability finding is made by the federal government or a state agency. As a result of these changes, fewer records would be eligible for inclusion in the system and many currently in the system would be removed.
  • The compromise bill revives a program that allows those prohibited from owning guns to apply to the federal government to once again possess firearms. In 1993, Congress de-funded the four-million-dollar-a-year, taxpayer-funded federal "relief from disability" program, which allowed those prohibited from possessing firearms to apply for "relief" from the "disability" of not being able to possess a gun. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives program was shut down, and remains de-funded, after studies done by my organization revealed that among the tens of thousands it had re-armed were drug dealers, gun criminals, sex offenders, and at least one terrorist. Some of those granted "relief" went on to commit new crimes. The bill would re-establish a federal "relief" mechanism for persons prohibited from possessing guns because of a mental health disability and would also require states to establish similar state-based "relief from disability" systems in order to be eligible for the grants the bill makes available to improve mental health records.
  • The compromise bill would make veterans currently prohibited from possessing firearms for mental health reasons eligible to once again possess guns. Under current law, an estimated 80,000 veterans are prohibited from possessing firearms for mental health reasons. This change to the original bill comes in the wake of recent government and private studies revealing that the number of veterans dealing with mental illness is at an all-time high, with many receiving inadequate care. A recent Department of Defense task force study found that the military mental health system lacks providers and is "woefully inadequate" to deal with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Moreover, a new study reports that male U.S. veterans are not only twice as likely to commit suicide as men with no military service, but are also 58 percent more likely to kill themselves with a gun than others who commit suicide. A 2000 analysis by the New York Times of 100 "rampage killers" found that the majority (52 percent) had a military background and 47 percent of the killers had a history of mental health problems.

As Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Legal Community Against Violence, states in the release, "The bill's original intent, to increase reporting of state records to the NICS database, is an important objective that would improve enforcement of federal laws governing persons prohibited from possessing firearms. The amendments proposed by the NRA risk undermining those laws, and we call on the Congress to have a full debate on the merits of this legislation."