Leading GOP senator offers bill on guns, mental health

Thursday, August 6, 2015
Sen. John Cornyn

WASHINGTON -- A leading Republican senator proposed a National Rifle Association-backed bill Wednesday he said would make the federal background check system for gun buyers more effective and bolster programs for treating people with mental illness.

The measure drew criticism from groups advocating stricter controls over firearms, who singled out provisions they said would make it easier for some unstable people to obtain deadly weapons.

But it was backed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which advocates for people with mental illnesses, and groups representing police organizations, correctional workers and social workers.

No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn of Texas unveiled the legislation in the wake of last month's mass shooting in a Louisiana movie theater by a gunman with mental problems.

That and other recent firearms attacks have called attention to holes in the background check system and programs for people with psychological difficulties.

Cornyn said while past bills have been designed to "drive a political wedge" on the issue, his was aimed at helping people with mental health issues to "hopefully pre-empt them from committing an act of violence."

The bill's background check provisions are weaker than Senate legislation Republicans and the NRA killed two years ago; that legislation would have required the checks for firearms bought at gun shows and online. Cornyn has an A-plus voting rating from the NRA, which has impeded gun restrictions in Congress but has backed some efforts to make it harder for mentally ill people to purchase weapons.

Background checks currently are required only for sales by federally licensed gun dealers, which critics have said is far too limited.

People who have been legally ruled "mentally defective" or been committed to mental institutions already are barred from buying firearms. But states are not required to send those records to the FBI-run federal database, leaving it uneven.

Under Cornyn's bill, states sending at least 90 percent of their records on people with serious mental problems to the federal background check database would get law-enforcement grant increases of up to 5 percent.

States providing less than that could see grants cut by similar amounts.

But gun-control advocates said the measure would let people discharged from involuntary psychiatric treatment purchase guns immediately. Those patients have to win court approval to buy firearms.

The bill also would require court action before barring gun purchases by veterans declared incompetent by the Veterans Affairs Department. Currently, such veterans cannot obtain weapons.

"Senator Cornyn would make it easier, not harder for seriously mentally ill people to access guns," said Arkadi Gerney, a gun-policy expert for the liberal Center for American Progress.

The bill would give state and local governments more flexibility to use federal funds to screen for mental problems in prisoners and improve training for law-enforcement officers and others on handling emergencies involving people with mental illnesses.

It also would let civil judges order outpatient treatment for people with mental problems.

Two weeks ago, John Russell Houser fired a handgun into a crowd of movie watchers in Lafayette, Louisiana, killing two and wounding nine. Houser's family said they knew he had mental problems and had sought court protection, but he was not involuntarily committed to a hospital.

When he bought the weapon at a gun shop in Alabama, the information about his problems had not been sent to the background-check system, and the sale was allowed. Police said Houser killed himself after they confronted him.

Dylann Roof, charged in June's massacre of nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, bought his gun after an FBI background-check examiner did not discover he had been arrested for possessing illegal drugs, authorities said. That should have blocked his purchase.

On Monday, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced legislation that would provide extra federal money to states that send a broad range of data to the federal system, including information about people with mental illnesses, violent criminals and domestic abusers.

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