Gun Lobby Hijacks Bill Intended
to Improve Gun Buyer Background Checks
Passed by Congress Would Revive Failed Multi-Million-Dollar Program to Restore
Gun Privileges of Persons Currently Ineligible to Possess Firearms Because of
Mental Health Disability
DC--Leading national gun violence prevention organizations the Coalition to Stop
Gun Violence, Legal Community Against Violence, and the Violence Policy Center
today warned that a bill intended to improve the records available to the National
Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)--the national system used to screen
gun buyers--has been hijacked
by the gun lobby and would now do far more harm than good.
"NICS Improvement Act" passed today by the U.S. House and Senate would:
a failed government program that spent millions of dollars annually to allow persons
prohibited from buying guns to regain the ability to legally acquire firearms.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would be required to establish a "relief
from disability" program to allow persons now prohibited from possessing
a firearm because they have "been adjudicated as a mental defective"
or "committed to a mental institution" to apply to have their bar on
firearms possession removed. As a result of the bill, more than 116,000 individuals
would be eligible to apply. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
(ATF) used to run a similar program that, in addition to those with mental disabilities,
even allowed felons to apply for "relief." Annual costs for the ATF
program ballooned to more than $4 million in 1991, with an average cost of $4,800
per applicant and 43 full-time employees dedicated to processing the applications.
Congress shut down the ATF program in 1992 because of its high cost, inefficiency,
and threat to public safety. Under the bill, states would also be required to
establish such "relief" programs to restore the gun privileges of those
with mental health disabilities in order to be eligible for potential grant money
to upgrade records submitted to the NICS.
an arbitrary time limit for the VA to act on applications for "relief."
If the agency fails to act within 365 days, applicants could file a lawsuit asking
a court to restore their gun privileges, even if Congress fails to provide the
VA with the appropriate resources to process these investigations. Some prevailing
applicants would be entitled to attorneys' fees. This provision is contrary to
a unanimous 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ATF's failure to act on a relief
application from a felon (because of lack of appropriations) did not constitute
a denial that would entitle the applicant to judicial review. The decision noted
that courts are ill-equipped to make decisions on individual applications for
"relief" under the standards that would apply under the "NICS Improvement
Act," stating: "Whether an applicant is 'likely to act in a manner dangerous
to public safety' presupposes an inquiry into that applicant's background--a function
best performed by the Executive, which, unlike courts, is institutionally equipped
for conducting a neutral, wide-ranging investigation. Similarly, the 'public interest'
standard calls for an inherently policy-based decision best left in the hands
of an agency."
narrow the category of records of people with mental disabilities that would be
submitted to the NICS by the federal government. The current permanent bar on
persons with certain health disabilities would be replaced with temporary restrictions.
Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, states, "This bill
was intended to be Congress' response to the mass shooting at Virginia Tech that
left 32 people murdered. But rather than focusing on improving the current laws
prohibiting people with certain mental health disabilities from buying guns, the
bill is now nothing more than a gun lobby wish list. It will waste millions of
taxpayer dollars restoring the gun privileges of persons previously determined
to present a danger to themselves or others. Once a solution, the bill is now
part of the problem."
Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, adds, "It
is ironic that the gun lobby has coerced Congress into providing resources to
rearm mentally disabled veterans during a time when the VA is struggling to provide
adequate mental health care to those in need."
Thomas, executive director of the Legal Community Against Violence, 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 changes made by
the gun lobby risk undermining those laws."
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.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Violence Policy Center
(202) 822-8200 x109