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National Gun Violence Prevention Groups Voice Concern About Dangerous Components of Bill to Improve Gun Background Check System

Joint Release From Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Violence Policy Center, and Legal Community Against Violence

Washington, D.C. - Leading gun violence prevention organizations today expressed their strong concerns about little-noted additions to the "NICS Improvement Act of 2007." Originally introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) on January 5, 2007, the bill seeks to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) by providing states with grants to submit disqualifying records to the database. The current version of the bill was negotiated with the assistance of Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), who worked with the National Rifle Association (NRA) to secure their support for the legislation. The NRA was permitted to make last-minute changes to the bill just hours before it passed in the House on June 13, 2007, with little debate. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) is now prepared to offer companion language as part of his "School Safety and Law Enforcement Improvement Act of 2007," which is scheduled for mark-up by the committee tomorrow, July 26.

While the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV), Violence Policy Center (VPC) and Legal Community Against Violence (LCAV) strongly support the bill's goal of improving the mechanism by which mental health and other records are added to the NICS, they are concerned that components of the bill would create new loopholes for potentially dangerous individuals to possess firearms. In expressing their concerns, the groups cited three key changes that were made to the original bill, including:

  • The compromise bill creates a bifurcated system for submitting mental health records to the background check system-depending on whether the disability finding is made by the federal government or a state agency. As a result of these changes, fewer records would be eligible for inclusion in the system and many currently in the system would be removed. While state determinations would continue under the current law's standard, a new, more restrictive standard would be put in place for submission of federally generated records. Under the new standard, federal departments or agencies would be prohibited from providing certain mental health records (including mental health records of veterans) to the NICS if the records fell into any of several newly defined categories. For example, if a mental health patient has been "fully released or discharged from all mandatory treatment, supervision, or monitoring," the record of his treatment or hospitalization could not be submitted to the NICS and the individual would be permitted to possess firearms. The April 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy and ensuing investigations at the state and federal levels have made it clear that mentally ill individuals in the United States rarely receive prompt, consistent, and effective treatment for their conditions. In addition, federal records of commitments to mental institutions could no longer be submitted to the NICS unless they contain a specific finding that a person is a danger to himself or others or lacks the capacity to manage his own affairs. This would weaken the current federal standard in this area, which prohibits anyone who has been involuntarily committed from purchasing or possessing firearms. This provision also requires the removal of records that have already been submitted to the NICS database that fail to meet this new standard.

  • The compromise bill revives a program that allows those prohibited from owning guns to apply to the federal government to once again possess firearms. In 1993, Congress de-funded the four-million-dollar-a-year, taxpayer-funded federal "relief from disability" program, which allowed those prohibited from possessing firearms to apply for "relief" from the "disability" of not being able to possess a gun. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives program was shut down, and remains de-funded, after studies revealed that among the tens of thousands it had re-armed were drug dealers, gun criminals, sex offenders, and a terrorist. Some of those granted "relief" went on to commit new crimes. The bill would re-establish a federal "relief" mechanism for persons prohibited from possessing guns because of a mental health disability and would also require states to establish similar state-based "relief from disability" systems in order to be eligible for the grants the bill makes available to improve mental health records.

  • The compromise bill would make veterans currently prohibited from possessing firearms for mental health reasons eligible to once again possess guns. Under current law, an estimated 80,000 veterans are prohibited from possessing firearms for mental health reasons. This change to the original bill comes in the wake of recent government and private studies revealing that the number of veterans dealing with mental illness is at an all-time high, with many receiving inadequate care. A recent Department of Defense task force study found that the military mental health system lacks providers and is "woefully inadequate" to deal with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Moreover, a new study reports that male U.S. veterans are not only twice as likely to commit suicide as men with no military service, but are also 58 percent more likely to kill themselves with a gun than others who commit suicide. A 2000 analysis by the New York Times of 100 "rampage killers" found that the majority (52 percent) had a military background and 47 percent of the killers had a history of mental health problems.

In addition, the Senate companion bill weakens the compromise language even further. In the Senate bill the definition of "record" in 212(b)(1)(C)(iii) adds a completely new requirement-not contained in the existing statute or regulation-that raises the standard for identifying a person who is an "unlawful user of, or addicted to a controlled substance" and therefore disqualified from gun possession. Also, section 212(b)(2) shortens the scope of time for which states must submit records to be eligible for a waiver from events occurring within the prior 30 years under the House-passed bill to 20 years in the Senate version. This will create an incentive for states to focus on only the most recent records.

Coalition to Stop Gun Violence Executive Director Joshua Horwitz states, "This bill takes a 'relief from disabilities' program the federal government already scrapped because it was expensive and risky, and foists it on any state that takes the grant money to improve its NICS mental health reporting. None of the grant money can even be used by a state to set up this relief program. Why should any state that wants to reduce the risk of arming people who shouldn't have guns have to spend its own money on a relief program that increases that risk?"

Violence Policy Center Legislative Director Kristen Rand adds, "So many mass shootings in American history have involved disturbed individuals-many of them veterans-who did not, or could not, get the care they needed. As studies increasingly reveal the fragility of our national mental health system, Congress owes it to American families to produce a final version of this bill that will ensure public safety."

Legal Community Against Violence Executive Director Robyn Thomas comments, "The bill's original intent, to increase reporting of state records to the NICS database, is an important objective that would improve enforcement of federal laws governing persons prohibited from possessing firearms. The amendments proposed by the NRA risk undermining those laws, and we call on the Congress to have a full debate on the merits of this legislation."




The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals. The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related death and injury.


   For Release:
   Wednesday, July 25, 2007

   Contact:
   Marty Langley
   Violence Policy Center
   (202) 822-8200 x109