Advertisement

Spending bill would ease access to guns for some veterans declared mentally incapable

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing to examine the cost of prescription drugs, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Veterans whom the government declares incapable of managing their own affairs would have easier access to firearms under spending legislation expected to be signed by President Joe Biden in the coming days — a reversal of current law that Republicans, and even some Democrats, have been pushing for years.

Those lawmakers say the law requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to report veterans declared mentally incompetent to the national background check system punishes those who rely on benefits from the agency and may need help managing their money. But gun control advocates say the law is an important tool in protecting against suicides by those who have served in the military.

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said the change could result in thousands of mentally ill people having increased access to guns — “a death sentence for many,” he posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The spending bill provision comes as gun control advocates have scored modest wins in recent years. Congress passed a sweeping law in 2022 that would expand some background checks for people under 21 and provide new mental health services for children and schools, among other measures.

While several Republicans supported that legislation, though, some Democrats have supported the change in VA policy, including Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont. Tester, who also sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Tester has been pushing to reverse the law for several years, arguing that many veterans won’t collect their benefits at all because they are afraid that their guns will be taken away.

“It’s flat wrong that a DC bureaucrat could take away a veteran’s legal right to firearms simply because they need assistance managing their finances,” said Tester, who is up for reelection this year.

The spending bill would prohibit funding for the law but still allow the agency to report people to the background check system if there was a finding by a court that the person is a danger to themselves or others. Future spending bills would have to keep renewing the provision for the policy to remain permanently blocked.

The Senate endorsed the language in an amendment vote last fall, 53-45, with a handful of Democrats voting in support. Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, who offered the amendment, said that “veterans who sacrificed to defend our Constitution shouldn’t see their own rights rest on the judgment of unelected bureaucrats.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs maintains that it takes a “vigorous review” before reporting to the background check system and the department bases its decisions to appoint a fiduciary for veterans who can’t manage their own finances after looking at medical evidence or a court decree. There is also a due process for the beneficiary, the agency says, including opportunities to present evidence that they are capable of managing their VA benefits.

If the veteran is determined to be mentally incapacitated or incapable after the review, the VA is then required to notify the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, as required by the Brady gun law signed in the early 1990s.

“The standard that is applied related to the fiduciary responsibilities is a standard that we take great care with, that has been developed over much time and is meant to address a very delicate situation,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said last year.

In a statement on the spending bill — passed by the House this week and currently pending in the Senate — the White House said it opposes the reversal of VA policy but that Biden will sign the overall legislation, which funds several agencies. The language was included after negotiations between the two parties as lawmakers have worked for months to avoid a government shutdown.

“The administration remains committed to exploring every possible pathway to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them and ensure the safety of these individuals and their communities,” the White House statement said.

Gun control advocates said they would continue to try to prevent future legislation from expanding access to firearms.

Florida Rep. Maxwell Frost, a Democrat and the youngest member of Congress at 27, said this week that he voted against the spending bill because he’s concerned the reversal of the VA policy will result in more gun violence.

“Gun violence prevention is not just a priority issue, it’s what got me involved in politics at 15 yrs old,” Frost said.

Sen. Murphy, the leading Democrat on gun issues in the Senate and a member of the appropriations panel, said he tried to convince his colleagues to remove the provision but was unsuccessful. But he said he thinks “the gun safety movement wins more than it loses now.”

“But this setback is evidence that we must stay vigilant,” Murphy said. “Maybe we let our guard down here.”