Background Check Bill Dismissed as 'Gun Lobby Wish List'

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - Legislation passed by Congress this week to help states identify firearm buyers with disqualifying mental health problems was criticized on Thursday by a coalition of groups against violence as having been "hijacked by the gun lobby."

As a result, the organizations said, the measure will now "do far more harm than good."

H.R. 2640, the National Instant Criminal Background System (NICS) Improvement Amendments Act of 2007, "was intended to be Congress' response to the mass shooting at Virginia Tech that left 32 people murdered," said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center (VPC), in a news release on Thursday.

"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," she stated.

"It will waste millions of taxpayer dollars restoring the gun privileges of persons previously determined to present a danger to themselves or others," Rand added. "Once a solution, the bill is now part of the problem."

Under the measure, which both the Senate and the House passed on Wednesday, states and state courts would receive as much as $375 million each year for five years to streamline and improve the processing of mental health information used to identify people who are ineligible to own a gun.

States that fail to comply with those requirements could lose federal crime-fighting funds, but states with good reporting records could qualify for financial incentives. The bill would also require states to share disqualifying mental health information with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to make its records available to the NICS.

However, the VPC said, the bill would "resuscitate a failed government program" by requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to establish a "relief from disability" system that would allow people who have "been adjudicated as a mental defective" or "committed to a mental institution" to have their ban on firearms possession removed.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) used to run a similar program that, in addition to those with mental disabilities, allowed felons to apply for such "relief," the coalition stated. Congress shut down that program in 1992 because of "its high cost, inefficiency and threat to public safety."

H.R. 2640 also sets an "arbitrary time limit" of 365 days for the VA to act on these applications, the VPC noted. After a year, an applicant could file a lawsuit asking a court to restore his or her gun-owning privileges.

In addition, the new measure would replace the current permanent bar on persons with certain health disabilities with temporary restrictions on firearm ownership.

'Foul-smelling turkey'

As Cybercast News Service previously reported, supporters of the bill have pointed to the April 16 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech by 23-year-old student Seung Hui Cho as evidence that serious gaps exist in the transmittal of background records, which allows people who are prevented from acquiring guns to avoid proper background checks.

One of those supporters was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who said in a news release of her own that the measure is a "step forward in improving the gun buyer background check system and making our nation safer."

Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement that "the Virginia Tech killer was able to arm himself because the court order that should have blocked his gun purchase was not reported" to the background check system.

"It is estimated that at least eight out of 10 persons disqualified from buying guns for mental health reasons still have not had their records entered into the system, as well as one out of every four records of those convicted of felonies," Helmke added. "As the Virginia Tech shootings show, the result of this 'records gap' can be fatal."

Even the National Rifle Association expressed support for the measure by saying that it contains no new restrictions on gun ownership, only measures to improve compliance with restrictions that already exist.

However, Erich Pratt, director of communications for Gun Owners of America, told Cybercast News Service on Thursday that "Congress cooked up a foul-smelling turkey this Christmas," because "the so-called gun control compromise that was hatched yesterday in the U.S. Senate is really no compromise at all."

The legislation "will do very little to alleviate the problem that has already resulted in almost 140,000 veterans who have never committed a crime from losing their gun rights" after being diagnosed with mental illness due to combat-related problems, he said.

On that point, Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said: "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."

Nevertheless, Dave Workman, communications director with the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms (CCRKBA), told Cybercast News Service that his organization worked hard to include funding for veterans to use when combating their placement on the NICS list.

Workman disagreed that the measure was "hijacked by the gun lobby," instead saying that such comments represent the desperation of what he called the "quintessential extremist gun-control fringe," which hasn't had a major victory since the Brady Act was passed 14 years ago.

Besides, he noted, when shooters have exhausted all legal means to obtain a firearm, they often turn to illegal options.

"That includes somebody who walks onto a college campus or into a mall," Workman added, referring to 19-year-old Robert Hawkins, who used a stolen semi-automatic rifle to kill eight people before turning the weapon on himself at a shopping center in Omaha, Neb., on Dec. 5.

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