WASHINGTON – A House bill seeking to end federal checks that prevent more than 167,000 veterans deemed "mentally incompetent" from keeping or purchasing firearms is receiving criticism from some Democrats and former generals.
"This would be irresponsible, dangerous, and life threatening to those who need access to care, not weapons," a group of 14 former military officials wrote to lawmakers in a letter opposing the bill.
The Department of Veterans Affairs considers veterans who cannot manage their VA benefits and need another person to help with their finances as "mentally incompetent." The department reports the names of those veterans to the FBI, which adds them to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System – the national database that gun merchants are required to check before selling a firearm.
But last week, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs advanced legislation that would do away with that practice, and instead require the court system to determine whether veterans pose a threat to themselves or others before they're added to the database.
"It's disgraceful because the VA doesn't determine the veteran is actually dangerous before sending the name to the FBI. They only look at if the veteran needs help looking at his or her financial affairs," said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. "Unfortunately, the VA's decision has serious consequences for the veteran, including losing his or her Second Amendment rights."
Roe sponsored H.R. 1181, the "Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act," and faced backlash from some Democrats on the committee who said there should've been a hearing on the issue before the bill was rushed to a vote.
The most vocal critic of the legislation is Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., who represents Newtown, where 26 people were gunned down at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. After the shooting, former President Barack Obama sought to boost reporting to the national background check system.
Esty, a member of the veterans' affairs committee, criticized Roe's measure for allowing "veterans in crisis" to have access to a firearm.
"This hastily crafted, overbroad bill does not and will not help our veterans or our communities," Esty said in a prepared statement.
On Tuesday, members of the Veterans Coalition for Common Sense also expressed their disapproval of the legislation.
Fourteen members of the coalition sent a letter to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., contending the bill could increase risk for veteran suicide.
"When vulnerable veterans have access to firearms, they can do harm not only to themselves but also to family members and loved ones," the letter reads. "The impact of these tragedies is felt in communities across our nation."
The letter writers include Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Gen. James Hill, Gen. David Petraeus and Admiral Thad Allen, who President Donald Trump considered for VA secretary.
According to a report from the Congressional Research Service in February, federal agencies had added 171,083 names to the FBI database as of Dec. 31, 2016. Of those people, the VA added 167,815. The department began contributing names to the database in 1998.
Citing VA data, Roe said the VA reported approximately 32,000 names last year.
Esty, also citing VA data, said tens of thousands of veterans reported to the FBI database had mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, dementia and serious depression.
The VA's method for contributing names to the database has been long-criticized from veterans groups, such as the American Legion, which previously stated concerns that the law discourages veterans from seeking VA treatment.
The legislation has appeared in Congress multiple times in recent years, but failed to be passed into law.
However, this time it's under consideration following the success of a resolution that revoked an Obama-era rule banning Social Security beneficiaries from owning guns if they were mentally ill or deemed incapable of handling their finances.
Obama initiated the rule in 2013 following the Sandy Hook shooting, but it hadn't fully gone into effect. On Feb. 28, President Donald Trump signed a resolution that revoked it.
"H.R. 1181 is in congruence with what this Congress just passed dealing with the Social Security Administration," said Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., a member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. "We have to protect the constitutional rights of individuals, and the key here is due process. I think this is exactly where this Congress is going."
Read the full letter from the Veterans Coalition for Common Sense.