Bill proposes major changes to firearms laws for people with mental illness

NRA Sponsors Gun Control Measure
NRA Sponsors Gun Control Measure

A new NRA-backed bill, introduced August 8, would encourage states to expand their reporting of mental health records to the federal firearms database, while simultaneously expanding Second Amendment protections for many people with mental illness.

Under the Gun Control Act, people deemed “mental defectives” are barred from owning firearms. These individuals’ names are put into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, created in 1993 as part of the Brady Bill.

Under the current system, states are encouraged to turn over relevant data to the NICS, but the federal government lacks the ability to force states to do so. As a result, state participation efforts vary dramatically.

To induce states to hand over more records, the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act would authorize the federal government to provide states additional funding if they hand over 90 percent or more of disqualifying mental health records within 18 months of the bill’s passage.

States seeking to receive funds would also have to adopt a so-called “relief from disabilities” procedure. These programs, which already exist in some states, provide an avenue for people to regain their Second Amendment rights if they were previously adjudicated as unable to do so because of their mental illness.

“While potentially dangerous mentally-ill individuals are often known to law enforcement and local officials, gaps in existing law or inadequate resources prevent our communities from taking proactive steps to prevent them from becoming violent,” Republican Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, the bill’s primary sponsor, said in a news release.

The bill provides individuals categorized as “mental defectives” extensive due process rights, including notice, an opportunity for a hearing, and a right to counsel.

One of the Gun Control Act’s most controversial factors for determining whether a person falls under this category is the question of whether the individual “lacks the ability to contract or manage affairs.”

Using this language, the Department of Veterans Affairs regularly reports veterans to the NICS whom have been appointed fiduciaries to manage their finances. More than 170,000 veterans now fall into this category.

The new bill would bar the VA from reporting individuals solely on this basis. Previous attempts to do the same, through a narrower bill known as the Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act, have been unsuccessful.

The Los Angeles Times reported in July that the Obama Administration is working on a proposal to expand this system to the Social Security Administration. Specifically, it would direct the SSA to report to the NICS the names of the estimated 4.2 million people receiving Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income benefits who have been appointed fiduciaries to manage their finances.

Similar to the VA, Sen. Cornyn’s measure would block this proposal. A narrower piece of legislation, introduced July 21 by Rep. John Abraham (R-LA) would also prevent the SSA from moving forward with the proposal, effectively blocking the agency from reporting names of people with mental illness unless a federal court has declared them “mentally incompetent.”

Multiple gun safety groups have come out against the bill, on the basis that it fails to address certain well-known loopholes in the NICS, such as those for sales made online or at so-called “gun shows,” and makes it easier for some potentially dangerous individuals to obtain firearms, the Associated Press reports. However, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, citing some of the bill’s provisions for expanding mental health services, has come out in favor of it, as have various groups representing social workers, correctional officers and police organizations.