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House Democrats urge VA to find gun rider workaround

New spending law provision caused uproar among gun safety advocates

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., is chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., is chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Mike Thompson led nearly 140 lawmakers on a letter urging Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough to minimize the fallout from a gun-related policy rider included in the fiscal 2024 spending law enacted this month.

The rider included in the six-bill spending package would bar the Department of Veterans Affairs from reporting veterans unable to manage their benefits to the Justice Department for a background check without approval from a judge. Only three Democrats in the House and Senate voted against the package, despite deep misgivings about the provision from some within the party.

“For decades, veterans who are a danger to themselves or others have had their information submitted to the background checks system to help keep them and our communities safe. The Kennedy Amendment ends this practice and would place troubled veterans and our communities at risk,” Thompson, D-Calif., said in a statement, referring to Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., who offered the amendment attaching the provision to an earlier Senate spending bill.

Thompson is chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. There are 138 signatories — all Democrats — on the March 13 letter to McDonough, which was obtained by CQ Roll Call.

The new law changes a VA policy in place by statute since 1993, under which the department would report veterans unable to manage their finances and benefits to the FBI. When the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System sees that an individual has been deemed “mentally incompetent” by the VA, they are barred from purchasing guns and ammunition.

Under the spending package, the VA can no longer report a veteran who needs a financial adviser appointed to manage their benefits to the FBI background check system, unless a judge deems the individual a danger to themselves or others.

[Related: Gun rider injects a bit of uncertainty into spending bill vote]

“We are calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to use their power to bypass this rollback and they must do so before a single life is lost because of this legislation,” Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost of Florida said in a statement. He was one of three Democrats, including Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut and House Veterans’ Affairs ranking member Mark Takano of California, to vote against the spending law.

The House members urged the VA to establish processes that would automatically seek a judicial order for veterans deemed mentally incompetent. The department should stretch appropriations from previous years out for as long as possible, which would allow the VA to continue reporting names to the FBI background check system while putting those processes in place, the lawmakers said. The Kennedy amendment only applies to new appropriations for this fiscal year.

The department should also make full use of state red flag laws to report concerning behavior from veterans and educate state VA facilities about the tools available to them, the letter said.

Opponents say the provision ignores the heightened risk of suicide among veterans. Lawmakers asked McDonough to undertake a study of veterans considered unable to manage their finances, and those who die by suicide or are involved in an incident of gun violence.

Supporters of the provision authored by House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., and backed by his Senate counterpart, Jon Tester, D-Mont., say it restores veterans’ Second Amendment rights.

“No veteran should lose their constitutional right to bear arms simply because they need help managing their finances,” Bost said in a statement when the spending package was released. “And if they are a danger to themselves or others, a judge should make that decision — not a VA bureaucrat.”

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