Senator Offers To Cut Gun Language To Quiet Concerns About Mental Health Bill

john cornyn at cpac

Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn is willing to modify language in his mental health bill to ease concerns about gun ownership. 

(8-8-16)  “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain quipped when a major newspaper ran his obituary while he was still alive. 

It appears the same can be said about Rep. Tim Murphy’s Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. 

In a recent blog, I reported that a dust up about guns had doomed a Senate bill sponsored by Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) that is a companion to the Pennsylvania Republican’s House bill. A much modified version of Rep. Tim Murphy’s bill was approved in the House earlier this year by a 422 to 2 vote. But until the Senate approves its version, the legislation can’t be sent to the President to be signed into law. 

As first reported in the Hill newspaper, the Senate bill hit a wall when Senator John Cornyn (R-TX.) moved to merge his mental health bill into the Murphy-Cassidy bill.  Senate Democrats, including Senators Charles Schumer (NY) and Harry Reid (NV.) took issue with parts of Cornyn’s bill that dealt with gun ownership. 

Since posting my blog, I’ve learned that Cornyn has offered to drop the most controversial gun provision in his bill and modify the wording of a second stumbling block. These moves could create a Lazarus moment and make it possible for the Senate bill to move forward and be put to a vote in September. 

Gone is a provision that would have permitted an individual, who had been involuntarily committed, to purchase a firearm as soon as his or her commitment order expired. I’ve been told that Cornyn also has redrafted language about the Veterans Administration.

 Currently, the VA automatically submits a veteran’s name to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) if it decides a veteran needs a “representative payee” to handle his or her financial affairs because they are mentally incapable. Once a name is submitted to the NICS, that individual can’t purchase a firearm. 

Cornyn reportedly is willing to change the language in his bill so that it focuses on protecting a veteran’s “civil rights” rather than “gun rights.” The proposed wording would require the VA to offer a veteran a judiciary hearing overseen by an independent examiner before the VA submitted his or her name to the NICS. That hearing officer would make a determination about whether or not the veteran was mentally capable of gun ownership. The language being floated around the Hill is nearly identical to wording that first appeared in the Manchin–Toomey amendment.

Introduced by Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey, (R-Pa.), that amendment would have required criminal and mental health background checks when firearms were being sold either at gun shows or online.  It failed to get enough votes to be adopted. The voting was along party lines with 48 Democrats in favor and 41 Republicans opposed.

Two of the Democrats that voted for Manchin-Toomey were Schumer and Reid. That being the case, it’s possible that Cornyn’s willingness to adopt similar language about the right to an administrative hearing from that Democrat backed amendment may help tap down opposition to his bill being blended into the Murphy-Cassidy bill. 

I testified in favor of Cornyn’s bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee because it endorses and calls for funding of Crisis Intervention Team training, the development of mental health courts, and other proven effective programs that will help divert persons with mental illness from the criminal justice system and get them treatment. 

The National Rifle Association argues that untreated mental illness is the cause of mass shootings, not unregulated and plentiful access to firearms. Gun control groups use mass shootings to win public support for gun control. Guns and mental health shouldn’t be mixed together when it comes to passage of much needed mental health reforms.

One possible way to avoid this mixing of guns and mental illness would be for Democrats and Republicans to agree beforehand that no gun related amendments will be introduced when the Murphy-Cassidy bill reaches the Senate floor. Such an understanding would allow both sides to focus on mental health and not be sidetracked about gun ownership. 

Such an agreement might be the only way to move forward because if the Cassidy-Murphy bill makes it to the Senate floor and an attempt to add gun amendments is made, you can expect guns to trump mental illness and another go-nowhere vote along party lines.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.