Coburn supports ‘revisiting’ gun control, but stresses prohibitions need ’cause’

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of the fiercest Second Amendment defenders on Capitol Hill, supports another look at gun laws designed to block firearm sales to the mentally ill, his office said Thursday.

Congress passed such a law in 2007, following the shooting deaths of 32 students and teachers at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Yet the suspect in this month’s Arizona shooting reportedly had little trouble buying a handgun in November, even despite earlier concerns about disturbing behavior and habitual drug use.

The tragic episode — in which a federal judge was killed and a congresswoman critically injured — has prompted gun reformers on and off Capitol Hill to call for additional scrutiny of the effectiveness of the 2007 law. On Thursday, Coburn’s office said the Oklahoma Republican agrees.

“He is open to revisiting the law,” Coburn spokesman John Hart wrote in an e-mail. “His goal is to make sure we have a way to ensure that people who are truly mentally ill and are a threat to themselves or others are not allowed to buy a firearm.

“However,” Hart added, “he won’t support any measure that prohibits any American from buying or possessing a firearm without cause.”

Asked whether Coburn would spearhead an effort to revisit the 2007 law, Hart said it’s still “too soon to say.”

In 1968, Congress enacted a law blocking gun sales to anyone deemed by a judge to be a “mental defective.” Licensed gun dealers are currently required to consult the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to see if potential buyers fit that category — or any other prohibiting them from buying firearms.

The 2007 gun-reform law neither altered the “mental defective” designation nor expanded the categories of barred gun purchasers. Instead, it provided financial incentives to states to submit more information to NICS.

Different state privacy laws, budget restraints and political considerations, however, have hampered the effectiveness of the enhanced reporting. Indeed, through August of last year, 10 states had not reported any cases of mental illness to NICS, while 28 states had submitted fewer than 100 records, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an advocacy group.

By contrast, Virginia had reported almost 140,000 records — the highest per capita rate in the country.

The man arrested in the Arizona shootings, Jared Lee Loughner, had been expelled from community college for disturbing behavior and denied entrance to the military for a history of drug abuse, according to numerous reports. Yet he was able to buy a firearm and high-capacity ammunition magazines from local licensed dealers.

The shooting rampage killed six people, including U.S. Federal Judge John Roll, and injured 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The Arizona Democrat was upgraded this week from critical to serious condition, and is expected to enter a Houston-based rehabilitation center as early as Friday.

On Sunday, Coburn told “Meet the Press” that the Arizona shooting was a case of a “mentally deranged person who had access to a gun who shouldn’t have had access to a gun.”

Several of Giffords’s Arizona colleagues said this week that the shooting should invigorate Congress’s focus on mental health treatments, not necessarily gun reform.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said the tragedy highlights a larger problem of “severe mental health funding cuts” that’s plagued Arizona as well as the nation at large, according to spokesman Adam Sarvana.

“It’s made evaluations more difficult; it’s made voluntary commitments a lot less frequent; it’s cut back on the affordability of medication,” Sarvana said.

The office of Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) echoed that sentiment this week. Gosar, a community dentist, “has seen all too often that mental health has taken a backseat in our healthcare system,” spokeswoman Stefani Zimmerman said in an e-mail. “[W]e need to fix this disparity so that those with mental illnesses are no longer ignored.”

The other five members of the Arizona delegation — Reps. Trent Franks (R), Ben Quayle (R), Ed Pastor (D), David Schweikert (R) and Jeff Flake (R) — have declined to comment on the issue of gun reform over the past week.

Gun-control advocates haven’t been so silent. The tragedy, said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, “shows how weak the laws are in this country, because there was no law broken.”

Peter Read, the father of 19-year-old Mary Read, who was killed during the Virginia Tech shooting, agreed.

“We have a Virginia Tech in this country every day,” Read said, referring to the dozens of firearm deaths that happen each day nationwide. “How long are we going to let this go on?”

Tags David Schweikert Ed Pastor Jeff Flake Paul Gosar Tom Coburn Trent Franks
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