House Passes Bill Enabling Gun Sales to 'Mentally Incompetent' Vets

WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday passed legislation prohibiting the Department of Veterans Affairs from placing veterans on a no-gun list, despite outcry from some Democrats and former military leaders.

The House voted 240-175 approving the Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act, which will now go to the Senate. Critics of the bill said it would make it easier for veterans with mental illnesses to access firearms, which would increase risk of suicide and pose a danger to families.

"It's going to result in more deaths, more suicides of veterans throughout this nation," retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly said Thursday on a call with reporters. "It weakens our background-check system and makes our country a less safe place."

Kelly, along with his wife Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., created Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun-control advocacy group, after she was shot outside a Tucson, Ariz., supermarket in 2011.

Under current law, the Department of Veterans Affairs considers veterans who cannot manage their VA benefits and need another person to help with their finances as "mentally incompetent." The department reports the names of those veterans to the FBI, which adds them to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System – the national database that gun merchants are required to check before selling a firearm.

The bill would do away with that practice, and instead require the court system to determine whether veterans pose a threat to themselves or others before they're added to the database.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who sponsored the bill, said the VA was violating veterans' Second Amendment rights. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., said he worried the current practice was discouraging veterans from seeking VA care out of fear they'd be added to the list.

"What it says [is] if you can't balance a bank account, you can't handle a firearm. There is no relation between the two," said Rep. Ken Buck, R-Fla., who also spoke in favor of the bill. "So many people have been trapped by this overbroad rule."

President Donald Trump's administration issued a statement Thursday stating advisers would recommend Trump sign the bill into law if it passed the Senate.

The VA had contributed 167,815 names to the FBI database as of Dec. 31, 2016. It began adding names in 1998.

There was confusion among lawmakers Thursday about whether those veterans would be removed from the list if the bill were to pass into law. Roe said the names would remain on the list, but Democrats argued the language was retroactive and those 167,815 veterans would be allowed to purchase and keep firearms.

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., a member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, criticized the committee last week for advancing the measure to a vote without a hearing.

"This bill was rushed to the floor, with no… time for all of us to understand its full implications," Esty said. "It's fair to say that reasonable people disagree on how this would be implemented. The disagreement alone illustrates why this House should be taking its time."

Esty, who has been the most vocal opponent of the bill, represents Newtown, where 26 people were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. She's also vice chair of the congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.

On Tuesday, a group of 14 former military officials wrote to lawmakers, describing the legislation as "irresponsible," "dangerous" and "life-threatening." The letter writers include Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Gen. David Petraeus and Admiral Thad Allen.

Like Democrats who spoke Thursday, the military officials who signed the letter focused on the issue of veteran suicide. An average of 20 veterans commit suicide every day, according to the latest VA statistics. Two-thirds of those suicides are committed using a firearm.

"The tragedy of veteran suicides has affected families across the country, including my own," said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., speaking of his uncle, a Vietnam War veteran who committed suicide with a firearm. "To this day, it continues to plague our communities."

Takano conceded there were veterans in the FBI database who shouldn't be there. Instead of prohibiting the VA from reporting names to the database, he said a process was needed for veterans to easily appeal their status in the system.

Takano asked that lawmakers be allowed to amend the bill, but the House voted without considering amendments.

Esty called it a "rush process" and said "no genuine attempt was made to work across the aisle."

The bill's passage Thursday follows the success of a resolution that revoked a rule banning Social Security beneficiaries from owning guns if they are mentally ill or deemed incapable of handling their finances.

Former President Barack Obama initiated the rule in 2013 following the Sandy Hook shooting, but it hadn't fully gone into effect. On Feb. 28, Trump signed a resolution that revoked it.

by Nikki Wentling

Shootings In The US: House Passes Bill Allowing Mentally Ill Veterans To Own Guns

The House passed a bill Thursday barring the Veterans Administration from putting veterans on a no-guns list if they were determined to have mental illnesses. Under current law, the Veterans Administration decides that a veteran is "mentally incompetent" if they need another person to help them with their finances, and reports those names to the FBI, which adds them to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System—the national database gun merchants have to check before they can legally sell a firearm.

The Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act, which passed the House in a 240-175 vote, is now headed to the Senate, where Democratic Senators will surely reintroduce warnings made by both Congressional Democrats and retired military leaders regarding mentally ill people accessing firearms.

More than 8,000 Americans died from gun violence in 2014. And 80 percent of the U.S. population believed that those suffering from mental illnesses were partially to blame for the troubling amount of gun violence, according to a Gallup poll from Sept. 20, 2013.

"It's going to result in more deaths, more suicides of veterans throughout this nation," retired Navy Capt. Mark Kelly said Thursday in a phone a call with reporters. "It weakens our background-check system and makes our country a less safe place."

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, said the current practice by the VA  violated veterans' rights under the second amendment, and that there was "no relation between" balancing a bank account and handing a firearm. The VA sent 167,815 names to the FBI by Dec. 31, 2016, after beginning to do so in 1998.

Congress passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993 to prevent mentally ill people from committing acts of gun violence in response to the failed assassination attempt on former President Ronald Regan. The act, which installed federal background checks on American gun buyers while imposing a five-day waiting period on purchases, was named after Reagan's cabinet member James Brady, who was shot by John Hinckley Jr., during an assassination attempt outside a Washington, D.C., hotel in 1981. Hinkley was later determined to be mentally ill.

The Trump administration released a statement Thursday confirming he would sign the new bill into law if it passed the Senate.

Of the 1.7 million U.S. veterans who served in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 300,000 (or just under 20 percent), were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, according to the American Psychological Association.

House OKs Bill Making It Tougher To Keep 'Mentally Incompetent' Vets From Buying Guns

Updated at 1:55 p.m. ET

The House has approved legislation that would make it harder to keep veterans who are "mentally incapacitated, deemed mentally incompetent" or prone to blackouts from buying guns. Critics of the bill say it could raise the suicide rate among veterans — a rate that has risen in the past decade.

At least a dozen Democrats joined Republicans to support the bill, which was approved by a 240-175 vote.

The legislation would add a new hurdle to the process of blocking a veteran whose mental competence is in question from owning a gun. While the Department of Veterans Affairs currently adds the names of veterans it deems unfit to own a deadly weapon to a federal background check system, the bill would require a court hearing before that determination is made.

"About 170,000 disabled veterans are deemed mentally incompetent by the VA," NPR's Quil Lawrence reports. "A VA-approved guardian makes some medical and financial decisions for them. Their names go on an FBI list so they can't purchase guns — House Republicans sponsored the Veterans' Second Amendment Protection Act to change that."

Opponents of the bill say that easing gun ownership for mentally disabled veterans would make them a greater threat to themselves. As recently as 2014, an average of 20 veterans per day died from suicide, according to statistics released last year by the VA Suicide Prevention Program. Between 2001 and 2014, the VA said, the suicide rate among U.S. veterans rose by more than 32 percent.

Backers of the bill, such as Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the chair of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, say it would help veterans avoid being caught up in a bureaucracy that can make it tough to remove a negative label. Roe also cited the importance of "removing the stigma of mentally ill people — that because someone is mentally ill, they're a danger to themselves or others."

On the other side of the issue, Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., said, "When a determination is made that a veteran is mentally incompetent or incapacitated — for whatever reason — that determination is made to protect them, not to punish or deprive them."

Critics of the bill include retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army. Speaking to Quil about why he opposed the bill, Chiarelli said, "Every single study you can read on this shows you that people in crisis — because suicide is such a spontaneous event — when they separate themselves from personal weapons the incidence of suicide goes down tremendously."

The House legislation will now go to the Senate. It would change U.S. law by adding this section to sections governing veterans' benefits:

"Conditions for treatment of certain persons as adjudicated mentally incompetent for certain purposes

"In any case arising out of the administration by the Secretary of laws and benefits under this title, a person who is mentally incapacitated, deemed mentally incompetent, or experiencing an extended loss of consciousness shall not be considered adjudicated as a mental defective under subsection (d)(4) or (g)(4) of section 922 of title 18 without the order or finding of a judge, magistrate, or other judicial authority of competent jurisdiction that such person is a danger to himself or herself or others.".

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