For Release: Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Legislation Passed by Congress Would Revive Failed Multi-Million-Dollar Program to Restore Gun Privileges of Persons Currently Ineligible to Possess Firearms Because of Mental Health Disability
WASHINGTON, DC–Leading national gun violence prevention organizations the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Legal Community Against Violence, and the Violence Policy Center today warned that a bill intended to improve the records available to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)–the national system used to screen gun buyers–has been hijacked by the gun lobby and would now do far more harm than good.
The “NICS Improvement Act” passed today by the U.S. House and Senate would:
- Resuscitate a failed government program that spent millions of dollars annually to allow persons prohibited from buying guns to regain the ability to legally acquire firearms. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would be required to establish a “relief from disability” program to allow persons now prohibited from possessing a firearm because they have “been adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution” to apply to have their bar on firearms possession removed. As a result of the bill, more than 116,000 individuals would be eligible to apply. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) used to run a similar program that, in addition to those with mental disabilities, even allowed felons to apply for “relief.” Annual costs for the ATF program ballooned to more than $4 million in 1991, with an average cost of $4,800 per applicant and 43 full-time employees dedicated to processing the applications. Congress shut down the ATF program in 1992 because of its high cost, inefficiency, and threat to public safety. Under the bill, states would also be required to establish such “relief” programs to restore the gun privileges of those with mental health disabilities in order to be eligible for potential grant money to upgrade records submitted to the NICS.
- Set an arbitrary time limit for the VA to act on applications for “relief.” If the agency fails to act within 365 days, applicants could file a lawsuit asking a court to restore their gun privileges, even if Congress fails to provide the VA with the appropriate resources to process these investigations. Some prevailing applicants would be entitled to attorneys’ fees. This provision is contrary to a unanimous 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ATF’s failure to act on a relief application from a felon (because of lack of appropriations) did not constitute a denial that would entitle the applicant to judicial review. The decision noted that courts are ill-equipped to make decisions on individual applications for “relief” under the standards that would apply under the “NICS Improvement Act,” stating: “Whether an applicant is ‘likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety’ presupposes an inquiry into that applicant’s background–a function best performed by the Executive, which, unlike courts, is institutionally equipped for conducting a neutral, wide-ranging investigation. Similarly, the ‘public interest’ standard calls for an inherently policy-based decision best left in the hands of an agency.”
- Significantly narrow the category of records of people with mental disabilities that would be submitted to the NICS by the federal government. The current permanent bar on persons with certain health disabilities would be replaced with temporary restrictions.
Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, states, “This bill was intended to be Congress’ response to the mass shooting at Virginia Tech that left 32 people murdered. But rather than focusing on improving the current laws prohibiting people with certain mental health disabilities from buying guns, the bill is now nothing more than a gun lobby wish list. It will waste millions of taxpayer dollars restoring the gun privileges of persons previously determined to present a danger to themselves or others. Once a solution, the bill is now part of the problem.”
Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, adds, “It is ironic that the gun lobby has coerced Congress into providing resources to rearm mentally disabled veterans during a time when the VA is struggling to provide adequate mental health care to those in need.”
Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Legal Community Against Violence, comments, “The bill’s original intent, to increase reporting of state records to the NICS database, is an important objective that would improve enforcement of federal laws governing persons prohibited from possessing firearms. The changes made by the gun lobby risk undermining those laws.”