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How the NRA used the worst mass shooting in U.S. history to help arm the mentally ill

Wondering why the NRA is so quiet in the wake of the Newtown shootings? Call it the calm before the storm.
Zong Yang Tan, right, and Guan Fu Jiang light candles at the makeshift memorial in the center of Sandy Hook village on Monday in Newtown, Conn. (David Friedman / NBC News)
Zong Yang Tan, right, and Guan Fu Jiang light candles at the makeshift memorial in the center of Sandy Hook village on Monday in Newtown, Conn.

Wondering why the NRA is so quiet in the wake of the Newtown shootings? Call it the calm before the storm.

They're not running scared. They're not bamboozled. This is the NRA: They have a playbook, one that takes advantage of bureaucratic inefficiencies and the jurisdictional loopholes inherent in a federal system. Oh, and their ability to strong arm on the state-level.

The NRA, after all, helped to arm the mentally ill after the Virginia Tech shooting. Yes, you read that correctly. The NRA helped put guns in the hands of those people with a history of mental illness. This is a bit of a shaggy dog tale, so bear with me. But I promise that by the end you'll have some insight into how the NRA co-opts even the most bipartisan, "who could argue with that?" legislation for its own ends—which should give reform advocates some idea of what they're up against.

Back in 2007, after what is still the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, Washington needed to act. And so Congress passed The NCIS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007. The law requires all states to submit mental health records to national databases maintained by the FBI; in return Uncle Sam would pony up the cash to make this thing work.

You wouldn't think reformists would need to make a deal with the devil to get this done. But argue the NRA did, and so the reformists had to make a deal. The NRA said, essentially, it wouldn't oppose any deal...PROVIDED the bill did two main things.

The first, was to more narrowly define who could be considered a "mental defective" (and, yes, that's the bill's language). Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, once you were banned, that was it: No more guns. With the new bill, loopholes were created. Now, a person could be granted his right to bear arms again were he, for instance, "rehabilitated through any procedure available under law"—which could mean just about anything.

The second was something called a "Relief from Disabilities" program. This is the mechanism by which the mentally ill can re-establish their mental health bona- fides to buy guns again. Here's how the law describes it, in part, with plain English to follow:

Each application for relief submitted under the program required by this subparagraph shall be processed not later than 365 days after the receipt of the application. If a Federal department or agency fails to resolve an application for relief within 365 days for any reason, including a lack of appropriated funds, the department or agency shall be deemed for all purposes to have denied such request for relief without cause. Judicial review of any petitions brought under this clause shall be de novo.

And now again, courtesy the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, in plain English:

These “relief” programs will allow persons whose names are entered into NICS by a state because they are barred from possessing a gun for mental health reasons to be removed if they “will not be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety” and if “the granting of the relief would not be contrary to the public interest.”

Sounds simple enough and, in theory, even justifiable. But as The New York Times detailed in great depth last year, the way this works is the person goes before judges, "who are often ill-equipped to conduct investigations from the bench. Many seemed willing to simply give petitioners the benefit of the doubt. The results often seem haphazard." In other words, a judge untrained in mental health issues—and not, say, an independent expert trained in such issues—often has the final say over whether a person with a history of mental health issues gets back his guns. Thank you, NRA.

And the effects can be, well, absolutely predictable. From the same Times story:

"In early 2008, a Superior Court judge in San Diego granted [Larry] Lamb’s petition to have his firearms rights restored, after his psychologist testified that he was not dangerous. But the judge, without access to Mr. Lamb’s full medical history, was unaware of a crucial fact: the local Veterans Affairs hospital had placed a 'red flag' on Mr. Lamb, barring him from the hospital grounds because he was perceived to be a threat to personnel there."

Did you catch the part about how "his psychologist testified?" It doesn't even need to be that. The Times story notes even a doctor's note could work. That's right: The same scam people use to get an ergonomic chair at work is now an effective way for the mentally ill to own guns.

But that's not even the kicker.

The kicker is that you, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, pay for this or any successful defense. A section of the law requires the federal government to pay "a reasonable attorney's fee" should the person successfully petition to have his rights re-instated. So, yes: Thanks in part to the NRA, helping the mentally ill get guns is now a paying gig.

Of course, had the NRA had its way with the bill, no one would judge whether the mentally ill should receive guns. Again, the Brady Center:

The gun lobby tried and failed to include a provision that would have automatically granted relief if a federal agency did not act on a petition for “relief from disabilities” within 365 days.

President Bush signed the bill into law Jan 8, 2008. But the NRA wasn't done. Oh, no. It then began a campaign to water down state requirements "proving" a person with a history of mental health issues was competent enough to own a gun again.

Take Nebraska, for instance. The NRA-backed law was touted as such on the organization's website. Why? Well, because in addition to narrowly defining which mental health records would be used, the bill also waived the 6-month residency requirement for anyone with a concealed weapon carry permit from another state. Even better, the law also allowed anyone with such a permit to take that gun to school with them—provided "the handgun is locked inside the glove box [or] trunk", because, you know, those things are like Fort Knox.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns says that as of Oct. 2011, Nebraska has submitted all of two mental health records to the FBI's databases. More disturbing is that those "two mental health records" are two more than 9 other states submitted.

Mind you, the Brady Center supported this bill, despite its obvious flaws: "The number of persons added to the Brady background check system by the NICS Act should be significantly more than those who receive 'relief' pursuant to these provisions." Which may be true. Still, the fact that the NRA could extract anything —particularly more gun rights for the mentally ill in a bill that's supposed to better police the mentally ill's access to guns—tells us how effective the NRA is at lobbying.

We all keep saying or hearing how "This time is different," that there will be meaningful gun reform. Perhaps so. But remember: the NRA has heard it all before. And right now what we call "silence" is a typically well-organized machine that's laying low for good reason while it figures out how to survive.

If anything, this debate comes down to which bromide you believe. "This time is different", or "This too shall pass."