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Cornyn’s mental health bill: Wolf in sheep’s clothing

For months on Capitol Hill, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has been telling anyone who will listen that he has a mental health fix to America’s gun violence epidemic. Cornyn has touted his NRA-supported bill, S.2002 (the “Mental Health and Safe Communities Act of 2015”), as something that will improve mental health services in America, which will in turn reduce gun violence and mass shootings. 

When Cornyn introduced the legislation, he stated, “While potentially dangerous mentally-ill individuals are often known to law enforcement and local officials, gaps in existing law or inadequate resources prevent our communities from taking proactive steps to prevent them from becoming violent. By giving our communities the resources necessary to recognize and prevent acts of violence, we not only protect American families, but help those affected by mental illness.”

{mosads}His bill seems too good to be true, reducing gun violence without doing anything about guns.  And unfortunately, under closer inspection, it is. If enacted, S.2002 would exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, this nation’s gun violence epidemic. The senator’s bill would make it easier for people at risk for violent behavior to obtain guns.

It is important to be clear here regarding mental illness and violent behavior. Most people with mental illness will never be dangerous and research shows that people with serious mental illness are more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of violence. However, there are certain factors based on behavior, not diagnosis, which increase a person’s risk of future violence. One of those factors is involuntary hospitalization based on risk of harm to self or others, which is why federal law prohibits those who have been involuntary committed to a psychiatric institution from purchasing of possessing firearms until a court restores their rights.

For some inexplicable reason (or maybe as a favor to the NRA), S.2002 would change federal law by creating a disqualification that lasts only as long as a commitment order is in effect, which is typically a matter of days. This could be disastrous because research shows that the period immediately following a discharge from an inpatient facility is the time of most concern for many patients who are going back to the outside world where all the same stressors (including drugs and alcohol) are still there.

Additionally, Cornyn’s bill would immediately remove those who are so mentally impaired that they have a court appointed guardians to manage their financial affairs from the National Instant Background Check System (NICS). Currently, federal law prohibits those who have been adjudicated as “mental defectives” (I admit, this derogatory term needs to be changed) from purchasing or owning firearms. S.2002 would narrow this category of persons significantly so that financial incapacity would no longer qualify as a firearm prohibition. While some might argue the financial incapacity disqualification is too broad, in this setting, where a state court judge with full due process has ruled, we should not offer across the board restoration without ensuring that individuals who pose a risk to self and/or others remain prohibited. The answer to out-of-control gun violence in our society is not to give thousands of individuals who are at potential risk for future violence immediate access to guns.

The United States of America desperately needs a comprehensive bill that aims to reduce our raging epidemic of gun violence as well as bill that vastly improves services to the mentally ill. But what we don’t need to do is conflate these issues because while a mental health services bill may reduce the suffering of those afflicted by mental illness, it will do little to thwart interpersonal gun violence. If Cornyn is serious about helping the mentally ill he should drop the Christmas gifts for the NRA from his bill. If he is serious about actually stopping gun violence then he should support current congressional efforts to enact universal background checks and keep guns away from dangerous people like domestic abusers and terrorists.

Horwitz, J.D., is executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

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