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Rift Over Guns Threatens Mental Health Package

Cornyn has been pushing his mental health bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Cornyn has been pushing his mental health bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senators are continuing to negotiate a mental health system overhaul package, but one issue threatens its future: guns.  

“I think there’s a chance for a big, bipartisan mental health reform bill in the Senate this year,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, said Wednesday. “I think that’s unlikely to happen if there are gun provisions on the floor.”  

Murphy said senators were working to craft a sweeping mental health bill that would be based on legislation drafted by him and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and include a few other measures. The hope, he said, is to get it out of committee and bring it up at the same time as Sen. John Cornyn’s bill, which addresses the link between the mental health and criminal justice systems.  

“We’re hoping to get that negotiation wrapped up in weeks, not months, so that our bill could come to the floor at the same time as the Cornyn bill,” Murphy said.  

But some provisions in Cornyn’s bill relating to firearms could threaten the fate of the package, which became clear at a Senate Judiciary hearing Wednesday. The hearing focused mainly on the links between the mental health system and the criminal justice system, which witnesses characterized as a “revolving door.” But a brief exchange between two top senators revealed that the gun provisions could cause partisan divides.  

Currently, anyone who has been found by a court or lawful authority to have a mental illness and be a danger to oneself or others, or has been committed to a mental institution, is barred from possessing a firearm. In 2014, the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System, or NICS, issued more than 3,500 firearm denials due to “adjudicated mental health,” which were a fraction of the nearly 91,000 total denials.  

The provisions in Cornyn’s bill would set up an administrative review process for someone who is barred from obtaining a firearm due to mental illness, and set conditions to remove records from a federal background check system.  

“In fact, some of the provisions in Senator Cornyn’s bill would make it easier, not harder, for mentally ill individuals to access firearms,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “That is the opposite direction from which we should be moving.” The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence president blasted Cornyn’s bill as “two-faced” and “dangerous” in a press release Wednesday.  

“Nothing in my legislation makes it easier for mentally ill people to get access to firearms,” Cornyn, responded at the hearing. “Nothing.”  

Cornyn later told reporters that Schumer “completely mischaracterized” his legislation, arguing that his bill provides due process and requires that there be evidence someone has a “disqualifying mental illness” before they are barred from obtaining a gun.  

Cornyn demurred on whether the disagreement over the firearm provisions could endanger his effort to combine his bill with other mental health legislation, and threaten the the broader effort to overhaul the mental health system.  

“I recognize that that’s a point of difference, and we need to have a conversation about how serious everyone is about getting something done,” Cornyn said. “I certainly would like to get something done.”  

He could face some resistance from Rep. Tim Murphy, the Pennsylvania Republican who is the architect of the comprehensive mental health system legislation in the House.  Rep. Murphy said Wednesday that he did not know the exact wording of the provisions in Cornyn’s bill, but was wary of incorporating any language about guns into the package.  

“As soon as we start adding things to them about guns and weapons, etc., it changes the whole tone of what we’re trying to do,” he said. “I just get worried we confuse them with a lot of other issues that would derail our efforts to take away the stigma of dealing with the actual disease.”  

The House Republican said he and Cornyn discussed their bills at the joint GOP retreat in Baltimore in January, and that he was due to talk with Cornyn again, as  Rep. Murphy is currently in the process of looking at language of other bills and proposals to incorporate into a broader bill.  

Murphy, a clinical psychologist, did acknowledge a connection between the criminal justice and mental health systems, but said they didn’t necessarily need to be addressed in the same piece of legislation.  

The connection between the two systems was evident at the Wednesday hearing, where witnesses pointed to the high numbers of incarcerated individuals with mental illness, and stressed the need for proper treatment for those suffering and crisis intervention training for law enforcement.  

A focus on officer training and multi-departmental coordination on mental health efforts in Texas was touted at the hearing as a potential model for other jurisdictions.  

“This is an issue that affects everyone,” Bexar County Sheriff Susan L. Pamerleau told senators, explaining that her brother was mentally illl. She added, “Jails are not the place for those suffering from mental illness.”  

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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