House Republicans Just Made It Easier For Vets With Mental Health Issues To Get Guns

March 18th 2017

Willie Burnley Jr.

On Thursday, House Republicans passed a bill that would block the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from keeping guns out of the hands of veterans whose struggle with their mental health could potentially make them a danger to themselves or others.

Currently, when the VA is notified of a veteran who is “mentally defective” — as they classify it — they report this person to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) so that they may not obtain a firearm, unless they can prove to a court that they are not a danger to themselves or others. Under the bill, however, a court hearing would be required before veterans who are “mentally incapacitated, deemed mentally incompetent, or experiencing [blackouts]” can be registered to the NICS by the VA. At least a dozen Democrats supported the bill as well. 

Supporters of the bill claim that mental health status shouldn't be a barrier to gun ownership. 

“A veteran’s right to a firearm, it should in no way be any less than any other person in the community,” Jim Stevens, director of the Veterans Arts Council at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1 in Denver, told Denver7. “Just because someone has PTSD, doesn’t mean they should be denied their rights."

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the chair of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, told NPR that the bills would ease the bureaucracy that comes with the stigma of mental health and the idea "that because someone is mentally ill, they're a danger to themselves or others."

But other are worried that the bill could lead to dangerous consequences. 

"Every single study you can read on this shows you that people in crisis — because suicide is such a spontaneous event — when they separate themselves from personal weapons the incidence of suicide goes down tremendously," retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army told NPR. 

A letter from the Veteran Coalition for Common Sense opposing the legislation noted that more than 174,000 veterans had been registered with the NCIS and that, for them and those like them, “possession of a firearm could be fatal.”

Gun violence is an extremely well-documented issue in American life, claiming the lives of tens of thousands every year.

An underreported part of this American phenomenon is how many people use firearms to take their own lives. More than two-thirds of gun deaths on average are are caused by suicides, according to a 2016 report released by The Brady Campaign, an advocacy group for gun control reform. That amounts to more than 20,000 suicides a year, according to the report.

ThinkProgress writer Laurel Raymond found:

“Veterans account for 8.5 percent of the U.S. population but 18 percent of national deaths by suicide. An average of 20 veterans die by suicide per day. Seventy percent of those suicides occur via firearm.”

Research has found that there may be a link between gun ownership and suicide, which could put at-risk veterans in a vulnerable position. A 2008 study found that rates of firearm suicides in states with the highest rates of gun ownership are 3.7 times higher for men and 7.9 times higher for women, compared with states with the lowest gun ownership—though the rates of non-firearm suicides are about the same. A gun in the home raises the suicide risk for everyone: gun owner, spouse and children alike.

As Catherine Barber of Harvard's Injury Control Research Center explained: "It’s not that gun owners are more suicidal. It’s that they’re more likely to die in the event that they become suicidal, because they are using a gun.”

Despite the data and a letter sent to Congress from retired military officials urging them to reconsider, the passed bill will now make its way to the Senate.