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Don’t let the NRA set policy on guns and mental health

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Do we really want to make it easier for people with dangerous mental illness to get guns?

That’s what a new, NRA-backed bill introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) does.

{mosads}The bill’s title might sound pretty good. It’s called the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act, and it makes you think it intends to solve the mental health piece of the country’s gun violence problem. But in fact, the bill weakens our gun laws.

In a summer when multiple mass shootings have focused people’s attention on the glaring loopholes in federal gun laws – loopholes the gun lobby has fought to keep – NRA headquarters has to do something. So it’s gesturing toward increasing incentives for states to report mental health records to the federal background check system. The press has been generally favorable; the headlines call the NRA’s proposal a background check bill.

Adding records to the background check system would be a step in the right direction – but consider what the NRA bill really does. It actually repeals longstanding law and invalidates many of the mental health records already in the system – all under the pretense of strengthening the system.

Right now, current law prohibits a person who’s involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital from buying or possessing guns. That prohibition remains in effect, until that person petitions for the restoration of his or her gun rights, and a court or administrative body restores them. This way, someone recovering from a mental health crisis can regain his or her gun rights – and guns – at the appropriate time.

That time isn’t right away. Involuntary commitments are typically brief – often a week or less – and mental health experts know that suicide attempts and other violent acts after hospitalization are most likely to occur shortly after release.

The NRA bill, though, equates release with health and stability. Forget the doctors, the courts, and the wishes of family members – the NRA bill restores gun rights, and returns a person’s guns, immediately and automatically. That’s regardless of a person’s mental health condition, and regardless of the risks or likelihood of relapse.

Think about it. Your loved one – with the aid of antipsychotic drugs, and as resources for long-term inpatient care facilities continue to shrink – leaves the hospital. Over time, the risk that he’ll harm himself will diminish. There may come a time when you’re more comfortable – and he’s more comfortable – with the idea of him having his hunting rifle back, or buying a new one.

But as far as the NRA is concerned, your loved one can leave the hospital and buy a gun on his way home. Once he leaves the hospital, the FBI would have to remove his name and record from the background check system. 

And if your loved one is a veteran with dangerous mental illness? Right now, he can be prohibited from buying and possessing guns, after V.A. proceedings in which he has a right to a hearing. The NRA’s bill changes current law – and allows tens of thousands of veterans with mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder to get guns.

We’ve seen the gun lobby try this kind of sleight of hand before.

In 2013, senators who voted against the Manchin-Toomey background check bill supported a separate measure that, they claimed, would improve the reporting of mental health records and strengthen the federal system. But again, the net effect would’ve been greater access to guns for the dangerously mentally ill.

For the gun lobby, the answer after Newtown was forcing guns on schools. After Charleston, it was guns in churches. After Aurora and Lafayette, guns in movie theaters.

Now, with Americans increasingly appalled at the fact that people can slip through the cracks of the background check system and buy guns, the NRA’s lobbyists propose a fix – but, perhaps so they can sell the bill to their no-compromise allies, they’re simultaneously trying to limit its effectiveness.

There are better proposals that actually strengthen the background check system. We can extend background checks to the unlicensed, private sales done at gun shows. We can extend them to gun sales online, where hundreds of thousands of guns are bought and sold basically anonymously every year. We can also add more mental health records to the system, without invalidating other records at the same time.

Let’s not rob Peter to pay Paul. The deal the NRA is proposing isn’t a good one.

The cost of adding records to the background check system shouldn’t be more loopholes allowing the dangerously mentally ill to get guns. 

Feinblatt is the president of Everytown for Gun Safety.

Tags John Cornyn

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