Guns in America: Bill Seeks to Allow Gun Sales to Mentally Ill Vets

Michele Gorman

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected this week to consider a bill backed by the National Rifle Association that would prohibit the Department of Veterans Affairs from submitting to the federal criminal background check system the records of veterans with severe mental illnesses without judicial rulings. As it now works, veterans deemed “mentally incompetent” by the VA are placed on the list of individuals who could be denied weapons permits.

Related: Guns in America: Bill seeks to reverse research ban

Earlier this week, 14 retired admirals and generals from all branches of the military sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to oppose the bill. Veterans, they argued, are at a higher risk of suicide compared to the U.S. civilian population: According to the Department of Defense’s 2014 Suicide Event Report, which was published last year, an average of 20 veterans commit suicide each day, two-thirds of whom do so by using a firearm. Among the retired officers signing the letter were General David Petraeus, a former CIA director, Admiral Thad Allen and Generals Michael Hayden and Stanley McChrystal.

The bill, called the Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act, is sponsored by Representative Phil Roe, a Republican from Tennessee who is chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. It was introduced in February and is already up for consideration in the full House, likely on Thursday.

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Veterans attend Memorial Day services at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on November 11, 2016. The House this week likely will consider a National Rifle Association–backed bill that seeks to enable gun sales to “mentally incompetent” veterans. Joshua Roberts/Reuters

If it passes the House and Senate and President Donald Trump signs it into law, the measure would also enable the FBI to retroactively delete the records of more than 174,000 veterans who are mentally unable to manage their finances and are blocked by the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System (NICS) from purchasing firearms. The NICS is the national database that gun sellers are required to check before selling a firearm.

Roe currently has five co-sponsors for his bill and it is backed by the NRA, which says the VA’s longtime practice “arbitrarily” denies some veterans their right of self-protection. Only veterans designated as a danger to themselves or others, the NRA argues, should be blocked from purchasing guns.

This is Republicans’ second attempt in the two-month-old Congress to rollback existing federal gun laws. The House and Senate voted to revoke a regulation that prevented certain Social Security recipients with mental health conditions from buying guns. Trump earlier this month signed off on revoking the regulation, which was put into effect after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Most Democrats disagree with Roe’s bill, saying it would allow at-risk veterans easy access to firearms. Representative Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee who represents the district where the Sandy Hook massacre took place, called it a “hastily crafted, overbroad bill” that won’t help veterans or communities. She introduced a substitute amendment that would call for a study to examine the effectiveness of the current information-sharing practices between the VA and NICS. The committee voted down her amendment last week.

In the wake of the April 2007 shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed legislation requiring all federal agencies—including the VA—to submit to the NICS the names of individuals who because of mental incompetency are legally prohibited from possessing guns. Since then, the VA has submitted more than 174,000 names of veterans suffering from mental problems such as long-term post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and dementia, according to the Veterans Coalition for Common Sense, a group established by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who became an gun-violence prevention activist after being shot. Of those servicemen and women, 19,000 suffer from schizophrenia and another 15,000 have severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

Under the current policy, the VA requires clear and convincing evidence of a veteran’s incompetency. At any point, a veteran can submit new evidence regarding the incompetency determination. On this point, the NRA argues that few of the individuals affected by the program have the means to fund expensive mental health evaluations and legal aid.

Republicans in Congress previously have introduced legislation to end the VA policy, but the bills ultimately died.

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