There are some political truths that are so obvious, they are accepted without question. We know for certainty, for example, that Republicans and the National Rifle Association oppose efforts to strengthen background checks on gun purchases, right?
Well, maybe not. The AP reported
yesterday that Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) has a bill intended to "make the federal background check system for gun buyers more effective and bolster programs for treating people with mental illness."
Currently, background checks are required only for sales by federally licensed gun dealers. People who have been legally ruled "mentally defective" or been committed to mental institutions are already barred from buying firearms. But states are not required to send those records to the FBI-run federal database, leaving it uneven. Under Cornyn's bill, states sending at least 90 percent of their records on people with serious mental problems to the federal background check database would get law enforcement grant increases of up to 5 percent. States providing less than that could see grants cut by similar amounts.
Is this the sort of bill the NRA will crush? Actually, no -- Cornyn, who has an A+ rating from the far-right organization, has the NRA's blessing for the proposal. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is on board, too.
In the last Congress, gun-safety advocates tried to expand the background-check system so that it would apply to online and gun-show sales. This proposal was unveiled soon after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, and it enjoyed overwhelming public backing, but the NRA and its allies nevertheless defeated the measure before it could even receive an up-or-down vote.
That policy remains a priority for reform proponents, but Cornyn's bill is something else. Indeed, reading the description of the bill's purpose, it's a little alarming that we need new legislation to address this at all. Shouldn't states already be sending their records on people with serious mental problems to the federal background-check database?
That said, the bill is not without controversy. The AP's report noted what else is in the same bill:
[Critics] complained that the bill would let some people discharged from involuntary psychiatric treatment, who currently need court approval to buy firearms, immediately purchase guns. The bill would also require court action before barring gun purchases by veterans declared incompetent by the Veterans Affairs Department. Currently, such veterans cannot obtain weapons. "Senator Cornyn would make it easier, not harder for seriously mentally ill people to access guns," said Arkadi Gerney, a gun policy expert for the liberal Center for American Progress.
"[U]nder Cornyn's legislation, the person getting treatment wouldn't be officially determined to be mentally ill and could, in theory, still purchase firearms. Under current law, a person would have to be adjudicated as mentally ill in order to be barred from purchasing a gun."
Let the debate begin.