Leading GOP senator offers bill on guns, mental health

AP News
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Posted: Aug 05, 2015 6:50 PM
Leading GOP senator offers bill on guns, mental health

WASHINGTON (AP) — A leading Republican senator proposed a National Rifle Association-backed bill Wednesday that 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 said it doesn't go far enough and 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 mentally ill people, and groups representing police organizations, correctional workers and social workers, which combined with NRA support could broaden its appeal.

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 that 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 prospects are uncertain,

The bill's background check provisions are far weaker than Senate legislation that 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 long impeded gun restrictions in Congress but has backed some efforts to make it harder for mentally ill people to purchase weapons.

Currently, background checks are required only for sales by federally licensed gun dealers.

People who have been legally ruled "mentally defective" or been committed to mental institutions are already 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.

Gun-control advocates said the measure should have expanded background checks to online and gun show sales. They also complained that the bill would let some people discharged from involuntary psychiatric treatment, who currently need court approval to buy firearms, immediately purchase guns.

The bill would also 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 prisoners' mental problems and improve training for law enforcement officers and others on handling emergencies involving the mentally ill. It also would let civil judges order outpatient treatment for people with mental problems short of committing them to institutions.

Two weeks ago, John Russell Houser killed two people and wounded nine at a theater in Lafayette, La. Mental problems that his family knew about had not been sent to the background check system, and he bought the gun at a shop in Alabama. Police said Houser killed himself after a confrontation.

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 didn't discover that Roof 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 providing extra federal money to states sending a broad range of data to the federal system, including information about the mentally ill, violent criminals and domestic abusers.