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National Rifle Association

NRA-Backed Bill Nudges Emerging Gun Safety Push Toward Friendlier Turf

John Cornyn's legislation incentivizes reporting of mental health records to the federal background check system. Critics say it could also allow some former mental patients to immediately buy firearms.

The Senate’s second most powerful Republican introduced a bill Wednesday that would incentivize states to report mental health records to the federal background check system for firearms purchasers. The National Rifle Association is backing the proposal.

Forwarded by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act would increase federal law enforcement grants to states by up to 5 percent for those that report at least 90 percent of their records on individuals legally designated unfit to purchase guns, the Associated Press reports. The bill also contains a host of provisions covering everything from law enforcement training programs to mental health treatment initiatives. The National Association of Police Organizations and the National Association of Social Workers have voiced their support for Cornyn’s proposal.

In 2013, a legislative effort to significantly strengthen the background check system, introduced by Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, drew strong opposition from the NRA because it would have extended checks to cover many private sales conducted at gun shows and over the Internet. Cornyn’s bill would not expand the types of gun transactions subject to background checks, nor expand the narrow parameters for prohibiting a person from buying guns on mental health grounds. Gun safety advocates are criticizing language in the bill that would immediately restore the gun rights of some former mental patients upon their release from involuntary treatment.

In the wake of this summer’s mass shootings, the bill provides a way for Republicans and the NRA to demonstrate that they’re willing to take action against gun violence, while at the same time diverting attention away from other, more wide-reaching reform proposals. Sens. Manchin and Toomey have expressed interest in reviving their legislation. A companion bipartisan House bill that would also create universal background checks was introduced earlier this year. A group of Democratic representatives and senators have put forward separate legislation that would effectively close the private sale and gun show loopholes through other means, facilitating what’s known as a national permit-to-purchase system

The NRA has not yet directly weighed in on the high-profile incidents in Charleston, Chattanooga, and Lafayette in the same way that it did after the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary, when Wayne LaPierre gave his famously fiery press conference. It’s possible to view the Cornyn bill as standing in for the organization’s response to this year’s renewed calls for gun reform. Earlier this year the Texas Senator renewed his push for the NRA’s highest federal legislative priority, a bill that would create nationwide reciprocity for concealed carry permits, forcing states to recognize licenses issued elsewhere. Cornyn has an A+ rating from the NRA for his support for gun rights.

The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background System, or NICS, has struggled to assemble complete records on those Americans barred from owning guns due to legal rulings on their mental health. At the end of 2014, NICS held 3.77 million active records on individuals judged mentally unfit to own firearms, more than any other category of prohibited purchaser except for unlawful aliens — but still widely believed to be a fraction of the total held at the state level. Neither the FBI nor the Bureau of Justice Statistics responded to requests from The Trace asking what percentage of relevant mental health records are currently accessible to the background check system.

Reporting has improved in recent years, however. Massachusetts, for example, has submitted 10,909 active mental health records to NICS as of April 2015, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun-industry trade group. Less than six months prior, the state had only reported a single mental health record to the system, according to an October 2014 report by Everytown for Gun Safety (Everytown is a seed donor to The Trace). Since 1998, the federal background check system has issued 18,678 denials to gun purchasers adjudicated as mentally ill.

In the Chattanooga shooting on July 16, the perpetrator had a history of severe depression. John Houser, the Lafayette movie theater gunman, had long battled mental health problems, but was still able to legally purchase the gun used in the attack. In 2008, a judge ordered Houser held for psychiatric evaluation, but never issued a subsequent ruling confining him for treatment. As a result, he was able to pass a background check.

Despite the spotlight that these recent high-profile incidents have shone on the role of psychiatric issues in mass shootings, academic literature indicates there’s little link between mentally illness and violent crime. More often, the mentally ill are a danger to themselves, rather than others.

[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]