Gun Lobby Splits on Improved Background Checks

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - The normally solid "gun lobby" has split on a bill intended to improve the system for conducting instant background checks on would-be gun-buyers.

The bill would require federal agencies to provide records of all individuals who are prohibited by law from owning guns to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS); and it would provide financial incentives for the states to automate and transmit their records to NICS as well. (States would be penalized for noncompliance.)

The goal is to provide NICS with updated criminal and mental health records -- to prevent a situation like the Virginia Tech shootings, where a student who should have been flagged as having mental problems was allowed to buy a gun.

H.R. 2640, the NICS Improvement Act of 2007, passed the House in June, but it can't advance in the Senate because Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has placed a hold on it, as Senate rules allow him to do.

The bill -- sponsored by gun control advocates Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) among others -- has the support of the National Rifle Association.

"The legislation would improve the accuracy and completeness of NICS by requiring federal agencies and participating states to provide relevant records," the NRA said.

But the much smaller Gun Owners of America (which calls itself "the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington") said the NRA has "taken a course which, we believe, would be disastrous for the Second Amendment and the pro-gun movement."

Sen. Coburn -- a gun-owner and a staunch supporter of an individual's right to bear arms -- objects to the bill because it would create "a pathway by which individuals can lose their Second Amendment rights but no pathway through which they can gain them back if they're stable," he was quoted as saying.

He also expressed concern about the cost of the legislation.

Concern about veterans

While the NRA supports efforts to improve the instant background check system that was set up 14 years ago, Gun Owners of America strongly opposes the system and always has.

According to the NRA, H.R. 2640 would remove gun ownership rights only if a person is found to be a danger to himself or others, or lacks the capacity to manage his own affairs.

The NRA emphasized that neither current federal law nor H.R. 2640 would prohibit gun possession by people who have voluntarily sought psychological counseling or checked themselves into a hospital. Similarly, voluntary drug or alcohol treatment would not be reported to NICS.

But the way Gun Owners of America sees it, "Your ailing grandfather could have his entire gun collection seized, based only on a diagnosis of Alzheimer's (and there goes the family inheritance)."

The Associated Press, in reporting on House passage of H.R. 2640, said it "could become the first major federal gun control law in over a decade." But the NRA insists it is not a gun control bill.

"Some pro-gun groups have claimed that H.R. 2640 would 'prohibit' thousands of people from owning guns. This is not true," the NRA said. "In fact, H.R. 2640 would allow some people now unfairly prohibited from owning guns to have their rights restored, and to have their names removed from the instant check system."

"We saw veterans go into the system unfairly with no way to get their rights restored," Chris W. Cox, chief lobbyist for the NRA, was quoted as saying by The Hill newspaper. "Once they're in the system, there's no way to get out. While not perfect, this legislation would go a long way towards helping to address some concerns [with the database]."

The NRA said the bill would require all federal agencies that impose mental health adjudications or commitments (such as the Veterans Administration) to provide a process for "relief from disabilities." That means even if a person is inappropriately committed or declared incompetent by a federal agency, the person would have an opportunity to correct the error.

"This actually restores the person's rights, as well as deleting the record from NICS -- a significant improvement over current law," the NRA said.

The legislation also prohibits federal fees for NICS checks. "A permanent ban on such a 'gun tax' has been an NRA priority for nearly a decade," the NRA said.

Dangerous alliances

In an open letter to the pro-gun community, Gun Owners of America said the NRA has "made a series of strange and dangerous alliances with the likes of Chuck Schumer, Carolyn McCarthy, and Pat Leahy. And we believe that, if allowed to continue, this will produce anti-gun policies which the NRA staff will bitterly regret."

GOA says the pending bill would "rubber-stamp" federal regulations "which have already been used to strip gun rights from 110,000 veterans. It would also allow an anti-gun administration to turn over Americans' most private medical records to the federal instant check system without a court order."

GOA also objects to the fact that the bill was "hatched in secret, without hearings or testimony," and passed out of the House without a roll call vote. The same thing is happening in the Senate, GOA said.

Passing the bill "will not quell calls for gun control," GOA said. "To the contrary, it will embolden our enemies to push for the abolition of even more of our Second Amendment rights."

The GOA also says the bill will not do anything more than current law does to help people get their gun rights restored: "The reason why no one has been able to get their rights restored under current law is that funds for the system have been blocked by Chuck Schumer," GOA said.

The bill's cost is a consideration as well, GOA said.

The GOA, in its open letter, "respectfully" asked the NRA staff to "step back from a battle with its membership" by opposing the bill rather than supporting it.

Another Second Amendment group is challenging senators on both sides of the aisle to make sure the bill does what it is supposed to do.

Mark A. Taff, executive director of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said, "Senate Republicans have an opportunity to stand up for gun rights, and that includes restoring those rights to thousands of veterans whose names were wrongly included in the NICS database.

"It also includes sticking up for American citizens whose names have been wrongly entered into that database," Taff said.

"Senate Democrats should guarantee that this legislation protects and enhances due process," Taff said. He noted that 83,000 veterans' names were added to the NICS database arbitrarily during the Clinton administration -- "and that must be corrected. They have found themselves disqualified from enjoying a constitutionally-protected civil right that they fought to defend."

CCRKBA Chairman Alan Gottlieb called for full funding of the process that gets people's name off the can't-buy-a-gun list ("relief from disabilities" investigations).

"Though the process remains on the books, there has been no implementing funding since 1991," he said. "People who have a mistake in their past, but have become productive citizens cannot get their rights restored.

"There should be a mechanism in place to allow funding of RFD investigations, even if the petitioner pays the costs himself. If we can restore voting rights, we must have the ability to restore other civil rights," Gottlieb said.

Subscribe to the free daily E-Brief.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.