I was worried when millionaire DC lobbyist Wayne LaPierre decided he’d wade into public policy regarding mental health. He’s a weapon salesperson. That’s his job. He sells guns. Mental health policy is not what he’s paid to do. So, I was deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a self-interested millionaire industry lobbyist lecturing us on public health, just as I’m deeply uncomfortable with the bellowing gun nuts who heckled a grieving father yesterday advising the rest of us on the safety of our kids in public schools.
They can’t even keep their weapons out of the hands of their own kids. They’re really going to lecture me what steps I should take to keep my kid safe from guns in a public school? We could have reduced school shooting incidents by at least one this past year without any new law at all if gun owners would simply take personal responsibility and properly secure their home arsenals. Why are their stockpiled weapons now my problem? I don’t need a hectoring, spit-flecked lecture from a celebrity gun nut on keeping my kid safe from guns in my local public school. My gun is never going to be used in a school shooting or an accidental, negligent, reckless or deliberate gun shot injury or death because I don’t own one. I don’t have any trouble keeping track of my weapons, so, for example, my gun will never find its way mysteriously into my child’s backpack thereby putting your kid at risk at school.
In any event, I shouldn’t have worried about weapon industry lobbyists compiling lists on the rest of us, because the NRA blatantly lied about the mental illness registry issue:
In his Friday morning news conference, National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre floated the idea of a national registry of the mentally ill as one way to stem gun violence.
“How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?” he asked.
The NRA lied to all of us. In fact, weapons salespeople actively and successfully fought attempts to create a national list of those who were too unstable or mentally ill to handle weapons. In fact, the NRA lobbied hard in 2007 to gut a law that was intended to do what LaPierre told us he wants to do.
After a Virginia Tech student killed 32 students and faculty in April 2007, the Bush administration proposed legislation that would require all states to share the names of residents involuntarily committed to mental health facilities. The information would be provided to a Federal Bureau of Investigation database.
The idea, in part, was to help gun dealers get important information about whether potential customers were mentally ill.
In order to get the support of the NRA, Congress agreed to two concessions that had long been on the agenda of gun rights advocates — concessions that later proved to hamstring the database.
The NRA wanted the government to change the way it deemed someone “mentally defective,” excluding people, for example, who were no longer under any psychiatric supervision or monitoring. The group also pushed for a way for the mentally ill to regain gun rights if they could prove in court that they’d been rehabilitated.
Here’s how it worked. It would cost money for states to share their data: A state agency would have to monitor the courts, collect the names of people who had been institutionalized, and then send that information to the FBI on a regular basis.
So, to help pay for data-sharing Congress created $375 million in annual federal grants and incentives. But to be eligible for the federal money, the states would have to set-up a gun restoration program approved by the Justice Department. No gun rights restoration program, no money to help pay for sharing data.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who once joked he’d like to bring a gun with him to the Senate floor, blocked the legislation, citing concerns about privacy and spending.
He negotiated language that, among other things, would allow a person’s application for gun restoration rights to be granted automatically if an agency didn’t respond within 365 days of the application and allowed people to have their attorney’s fees reimbursed if they were forced to go to court to restore their rights.
The final bill was sent to President Bush for his signature in January 2008.
The NRA praised Coburn and released a statement calling the law a victory for gun owners: “After months of careful negotiation, pro-gun legislation was passed through Congress today.” (The NRA didn’t respond to calls for comment.)
Since the bill’s passage, two analyses have shown that the NICS database has significant gaps, partly because of the way the NRA managed to tweak the legislation. The NRA-backed language creates problems for these states.
As a New York Times investigation found, many states haven’t qualified for federal funding to share their data because they haven’t established gun rights restoration programs.
In 2012, only 12 states received federal grants, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
While mental health data has remained sparse, some states have made it easier for the mentally ill to restore their gun rights. As the Times noted, in Virginia some people have regained rights to guns by simply writing a letter to the state. Other Virginians got their rights back just weeks or months after being hospitalized for psychiatric care. It’s difficult to know just how many people in Virginia have had their gun rights restored because no agency is responsible for keeping track.