As shocking as it may seem, a leading Senate Republican, with the support of the National Rifle Association (NRA), are teaming together to promote legislation that would make it tougher for mentally ill persons to acquire firearms. On Wednesday, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), the second-most powerful person in the Senate, introduced a bill that would reward states for sending increased medical information about mentally-ill persons in order to patch holes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Cornyn’s legislation would also create an avenue for courts to order treatment for persons who could potentially be determined as mentally ill without them being involuntarily committed. While the legislation does not prevent someone who enters treatment from purchasing a firearm unless they are ultimately determined to be mentally-ill, it does provide a clear avenue toward arriving toward that determination. Ultimately, the bill will direct roughly $195 million annually in federal funds towards the national database and programs related to the legislation, including giving states up to an additional 5 percent of federal law-enforcement grants if it sends at least 90 percent of its mental health records to federal authorities. Although the bill pushes to reinforce the existing background check requirements, it does not create any new additional restrictions on gun sales.
The legislation comes two weeks after a shooting in a Lafayette, Louisiana movie theatre that killed two women and injured nine others by a mentally-ill man whose access to a firearm should have been severely restricted. It also comes after the June 17th shooting inside the historic Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina that killed nine people, also conducted by a mentally ill 21 year-old who legally acquired a firearm even though he shouldn’t have been able to due to a prior criminal conviction. Both cases have sharply illustrated the incomplete nature of the federal background check system, although they are only two of the dozens of tragic mass-shootings to occur throughout the U.S. in recent history. Cornyn believes that the provisions in the bill will help those with mental problems get the treatment they need, and “hopefully pre-empt them from committing an act of violence.”NRA spokesperson Jennifer Baker said that the bill introduced, “meaningful steps toward fixing the system and making our communities safer.” In addition to the NRA, National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Association on Police Organizations have also endorsed the bill. The NRA has consistently rated Cornyn as an A-plus for his stance on gun-rights.
In a roundtable forum on Wednesday, Cornyn said the legislation was an attempt at finding middle-ground for an issue that has been “politicized so much.” He also said, “The thing I’m happiest that we’ve been able to do is I think find a narrow point of consensus in what is ordinarily an extremely divisive debate.” While Cornyn may or may not be sincere in his sentiments towards gun-control compromise, there is certainly a political aspect to this bill. Democratic New York Senator Chuck Schumer, alongside his celebrity cousin Amy, outlined his plan to propose similar legislation earlier in the week, with the difference being that Schumer’s bill would mandate states to submit all mental health information to federal authorities. The July 23rd Louisiana shooting occurred during a screening of Amy Schumer’s movie “Trainwreck.” There have been no Democrats yet to co-sponsor Cornyn’s legislation; and gun-control advocates oppose the lack of any additional gun sales restrictions. Critics also consider Cornyn’s bill to be an overly watered-down version of 2013 legislation proposed by the then-Democratically led Senate in the aftermath of the Sandy-Hook school shooting massacre. That measure, which would have dramatically expanded the federal background check system, was blocked, failing by one vote to reach the 60 needed to advance the bill to the Senate floor for debate. Four Republicans joined the 55 Democrats at the time in supporting the measure, with Cornyn joining in the opposition.
Dallas Morning News/AP – Alan Fram
Politico – Seung Min Kim
Wall Street Journal Law Blog – Isaac Stanley-Becker