Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Gun bill passes house HR2640
Gun legislation passed the house today by voice vote. It was a compromise bill by John Dingell and Carolyn McCarthy - HR 2640.
The NRA and GOA were split on this bill. I'm going to say "We report, you decide." If it is good or not.
First - The NRA's side of the story
The new version of the NICS Improvement Act (H.R. 2640) would require federal agencies to provide records of prohibited individuals for use in NICS. It would also provide financial incentives to states to do the same, by rewarding states that provide records to NICS and penalizing those that refuse to do so over an extended period of time.
Some pro-gun groups have claimed that H.R. 2640 would “prohibit” thousands of people from owning guns. This is not true; these bills would only enforce current prohibitions. In fact, H.R. 2640 would allow some people now unfairly prohibited from owning guns to have their rights restored, and to have their names removed from the instant check system.
The following are the key provisions of H.R. 2640, introduced by Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.), which passed the House of Representatives by a voice vote on June 13, 2007.
Key Provisions of H.R. 2640
H.R. 2640 would prevent use of federal “adjudications” that consist only of medical diagnoses without findings that the people involved are dangerous or mentally incompetent.
For example, NICS currently accepts Veterans' Administration decisions that a veteran or other beneficiary is an “adjudicated mental defective” where there was no “adjudication” at all--only a decision that the patient is unable to manage his own finances. Many patients may have accepted such a decision without expecting to lose their gun ownership rights.
H.R. 2640 would eliminate purely medical records from NICS. Gun ownership rights would only be lost as a result of a finding that the person is a danger to himself or others, or lacks the capacity to manage his own affairs.
H.R. 2640 would require all federal agencies that impose mental health adjudications or commitments (such as the VA) to provide a process for “relief from disabilities.” The bill allows de novo judicial review when an agency denies relief--that is, the court would look at the application on its merits, rather than deferring to the agency's earlier decision.
As a practical matter, the mental health disability is the only firearm disqualifier that can never be removed. Criminal records can be expunged or pardoned, but mental records cannot.
While BATFE used to have the ability to accept applications to remove individuals' prohibited status, appropriations riders every year since 1992 have barred it from doing so. Allowing this process through H.R. 2640 would be an improvement over the current law.
Under H.R. 2640, even if a person is inappropriately committed or declared incompetent by a federal agency, the person would have an opportunity to correct the error--either through the agency or in court.
H.R. 2640 would prevent reporting of mental adjudications or commitments by federal agencies when those adjudications or commitments have been removed.
H.R. 2640 would also make clear that if a federal adjudication or commitment has expired or been removed, it would no longer bar a person from possessing or receiving firearms under the Gun Control Act.
This actually restores the person's rights, as well as deleting the record from NICS--a significant improvement over current law.
States that receive funding would also need to have a relief from disabilities program for mental adjudications and commitments. State relief programs would have to provide for de novo judicial review, as in the federal programs.
Relief granted by a state program would remove the federal prohibition on the person possessing or receiving a firearm under the Gun Control Act--again, an improvement over current law.
Many states have processes for temporary emergency commitments that allow a short-term commitment based only on affidavits from police, doctors or family members, without opportunity for a hearing. Because federal law prohibits gun possession by a person who “has been” committed, a person committed under such a process can't possess a gun even after full release from the temporary order. By requiring participating states to have a relief program that actually removes the disability, H.R. 2640 would be a significant improvement over current law.
The legislation would improve the accuracy and completeness of NICS by requiring federal agencies and participating states to provide relevant records. For instance, it would give states an incentive to report people such as Virginia Tech murderer Seung-Hui Cho--that is, people who were found after a full court hearing to be a danger to themselves or others, but not reported to NICS due to lack of funding or contrary state laws.
The legislation requires removal of expired, incorrect or otherwise irrelevant records. Today, totally innocent people (e.g., individuals with arrest records, who were never convicted of the crime charged) are sometimes subject to delayed or denied firearm purchases because of incomplete records in the system.
The legislation prohibits federal fees for NICS checks. Under current law, only annual appropriations riders prohibit the FBI from trying to impose fees by regulation (as the Clinton Administration proposed in 1998). A permanent ban on such a “gun tax” has been an NRA priority for nearly a decade.
The legislation requires an audit by the Government Accountability Office of funds already spent for criminal history improvements. There has only been limited documentation of how hundreds of millions of dollars intended for NICS were spent on non-NICS programs such as automated fingerprint systems.
Voluntary Psychological Treatment
Neither current federal law, nor H.R. 2640, would prohibit gun possession by people who have voluntarily sought psychological counseling or checked themselves into a hospital:
Current law only prohibits gun possession by people who have been “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to any mental institution.” Current BATFE regulations specifically exclude commitments for observation and voluntary commitments. Records of voluntary treatment also would not be available under federal and state health privacy laws.
Similarly, voluntary drug or alcohol treatment would not be reported to NICS. First, voluntary treatment is not a “commitment.” Second, current federal law on gun possession by drug users, as applied in BATFE regulations, only prohibits gun ownership by those whose “unlawful [drug] use has occurred recently enough to indicate that the individual is actively engaged in such conduct.”
In short, neither current law nor this legislation would affect those who voluntarily get psychological help. No person who needs help for a mental health or substance abuse problem should be deterred from seeking that help due to fear of losing Second Amendment rights.
And then - GOA
While the entire nation was focused on the immigration bill the past couple of weeks, the gremlins on Capitol Hill were finalizing a "compromise" on gun control legislation.
The good news is that your tremendous outpouring of opposition to Rep. Carolyn McCarthy's Brady enhancement (HR 297) has sent a strong signal to Capitol Hill that this bill is unacceptable as written. The bad news is that there are some seemingly pro-gun Congressmen who are driven to get anything passed, just so they can say they did something about Virginia Tech.
So what's going on?
On Saturday, The Washington Post reported [ see http://tinyurl.com/23cgqn ] that both the Democrats and the NRA leadership had reached a "deal" on legislation similar to the McCarthy bill. This "deal" involves a new bill that has been introduced by Rep. McCarthy (HR 2640) -- a bill that has not yet been posted on the Thomas legislative service. While all the legislative particulars are not yet available, one thing is clear: it is, as reported by the Post, a deal with Democrats. And it involves legislation introduced by the most anti-gun member of the House, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY).
The Post says that, under the new language, the federal government would pay (that is, spend taxpayers' money) to help the states send more names of individual Americans to the FBI for inclusion in the background check system. If a state fails to do this, then the feds could cut various law enforcement grants to that state. In essence, this is a restatement of what the original McCarthy bill does. The states will be bribed (again, with your money) to send more names, many of them innocent gun owners, to the FBI in West Virginia -- and perhaps lots of other personal information on you as well.
Under the terms of this compromise, the Post says, "individuals with minor infractions in their pasts could petition their states to have their names removed from the federal database, and about 83,000 military veterans, put into the system by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2000 for alleged mental health reasons, would have a chance to clean their records."
Oh really? The Brady law already contains a procedure for cleaning up records. But it hasn't worked for the 83,000 veterans that are currently prohibited from buying guns. Gun Owners of America is aware of many people who have tried to invoke this procedure in the Brady Law, only to get the run around -- and a form letter -- from the FBI. The simple truth is that the FBI and the BATFE think the 83,000 veterans, and many other law-abiding Americans, should be in the NICS system.
After all, that's what federal regulations decree. Unless these regs are changed, Congress can create as many redundant procedures for cleaning up these records as it wants, but the bottom line is, there is nothing that will force the FBI to scrub gun owners' name from the NICS system.
Not only that, there is a Schumer amendment in federal law which prevents the BATFE from restoring the rights of individuals who are barred from purchasing firearms. If that amendment is not repealed, then it doesn't matter if your state stops sending your name for inclusion in the FBI's NICS system... you are still going to be a disqualified purchaser when you try to buy a gun.
Moreover, will gun owners who are currently being denied the ability to purchase firearms -- such as the military veterans who have suffered from post-traumatic stress -- be recompensed in any way for their efforts to "clean their records"? They will, no doubt, have to spend thousands of dollars going to a shrink for a positive recommendation, for hiring lawyers to take their case to court, etc.
And this is not to mention the fact that this procedure turns our whole legal system on its head. Americans are presumed innocent until PROVEN guilty. But these brave souls, who risked their lives defending our country, were denied the right to bear arms because of a mental illness "loophole" in the law. Their names were added to the prohibited purchasers' list in West Virginia without any due process, without any trial by jury... no, their names were just added by executive fiat. They were unilaterally, and unconstitutionally, added into the NICS system by the Clinton administration. And now the burden of proof is ON THEM to prove their innocence. Isn't that backwards?
One wonders if these military veterans will be any more successful in getting back their gun rights than the gun owners in New Orleans who tried to get back their firearms which were confiscated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (Gun owners in the Big Easy have found it very difficult to prove their case and get their guns back, even though the courts have ruled that the police acted improperly in confiscating their firearms.) But isn't that the problem when honest people are thrust into the position of PROVING their innocence to the government, rather than vice-versa.
The fact is, current federal law -- combined with BATFE's interpretations of that law -- will make it very unlikely that any court will restore the Second Amendment rights of those 83,000 veterans.
Finally, the Post article also says the "federal government would be permanently barred from charging gun buyers or sellers a fee for their background checks." Well, that sounds good, but GOA already won this battle in 1998 when we drafted and pushed the Smith amendment into law.
GOA had to overcome opposition from certain pro-gun groups to help Senator Bob Smith (R-NH) introduce and push his language as an amendment to an appropriations bill. The Smith amendment barred the FBI from taxing gun buyers, something which the Clinton administration was considering doing.
GOA won the vote in the Senate with a veto-proof majority and the Smith amendment has been law ever since. But now we're being told that we need to swallow McCarthy's poison pill so that the Smith amendment -- which is currently law -- will stay on the books. Huh?!
ACTION: Gun Owners of America is the only national pro-gun organization opposing the McCarthy bill, so it is imperative that you contact your representative immediately. Please take action today and spread the word about HR 2640! We need all the help we can get.