WASHINGTON -- Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced a bipartisan background checks bill on Wednesday aimed at preventing people who have been deemed mentally incompetent from purchasing guns.
The NICS Reporting Improvement Act of 2013 would clarify certain instances when a person loses the right to buy a gun based on mental illness. Specifically, it would require courts to report to the national gun background check system when a person has been found mentally incompetent.
Graham made the case for his bill by pointing to the story of Alice Boland, a woman who pled "not guilty by reason of insanity" in a court case and later went on to legally purchase a gun.
The Boland case "is 'Exhibit A' of a broken background check system," Graham said at a press event with the bill's other sponsors, Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). "Our bill addresses the Boland case and other similar instances to ensure that those who have been declared an imminent danger to themselves or others aren’t legally able to obtain a firearm."
The bill doesn't go nearly as far as another background check bill being hammered out by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). That bill, which would require background checks at nearly all points of gun sales and which is a top priority for President Barack Obama, hit a snag this week as its chief Republican cosponsor, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), appeared to pull his support.
Graham's bill is narrowly focused and spells out exactly who a court would have to report to the background check system: people found to be an imminent threat to themselves or others, guilty but mentally ill in a criminal case, not guilty in a criminal case by reason of insanity, or incompetent to stand trial in a criminal case. It would also include people who required involuntary inpatient treatment.
The bill's sponsors expressed confidence that their legislation would pass -- something they suggested may not be the case with a broader background checks bill.
"This is a piece of the puzzle you can get fairly strong bipartisan support on. We don't want to get caught up in all the other issues," said Begich. "This is about trying to improve something we have on the books that will keep guns out of the hands of many people who shouldn't have guns."
"If there's an item that can make a real difference, I think this is it," said Flake.
In the most telling sign that the bill will have a broad appeal, the National Rifle Association announced that it "strongly supports" the measure.
“This legislation will significantly improve the National Instant Check System, which is critically needed,” Chris Cox, executive director of NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement. "This bill will create accurate definitions of those who pose serious threats and should be barred from the ability to buy or possess a firearm, while protecting the rights of law abiding citizens and veterans. We thank Senator Graham for his leadership on this important issue and look forward to working him through the legislative process."
One thing that Graham's bill wouldn't do is close the "gun show loophole," or the gap in current law that means anybody can buy a firearm at a gun show without being required to undergo a background check. Schumer's broader bill would close that loophole.
When a reporter pointed out that a person like Boland would still be allowed to buy a gun at a gun show under their bill, Graham responded by pointing to the flaw he sees with Schumer's bill: It would require a record of sale in virtually all gun transactions.
"One thing I’m not ever going to support is, if I buy a shotgun for Mark [Begich] or give one to a family member, I'm not going to make that be put into the federal system. It's just not practical," Graham said.
While Schumer's bill hasn't been finalized yet, it doesn't currently appear as though it would require background checks for gun sales between immediate family members. But the broader issue of public record-keeping for gun sales remains the biggest hurdle for Schumer as he tries to win Republican support for his proposal, including that of Coburn.
Graham didn't rule out supporting Schumer's bill, saying it is something he would "certainly look at closely" once it is introduced. He also said he could back another forthcoming bill by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) aimed at gun trafficking.
"I'd be willing to look at what they have," he added. "If Grassley and Leahy can agree, there's a pretty good chance this can happen."
This article was updated after publication with a comment from the NRA.