VA Spars with Republicans over Gun Rights for Veterans Deemed Mentally Incompetent

Rep. Mike Bost interrupts Rep. Matt Gaetz
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., interrupts Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., as he nominated Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, in the House chamber as the House meets for the fourth day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Department of Veterans Affairs pushed back Tuesday against a GOP effort to ease some veterans' access to guns, arguing that doing so could hamper suicide prevention efforts.

The opposition came at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on a bill from committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., that would bar the VA from reporting veterans who are found incapable of managing their own finances to the FBI's national background check database without first getting a judge's consent.

Bost, who has identified the bill as one of his top priorities as chairman, and other Republicans argue the legislation is a matter of ensuring veterans receive due process before their rights to own a gun are restricted. Further, they say, the current system could discourage veterans from seeking care at the VA if they fear their guns will be taken away.

Read Next: Base Air Show Featuring Scantily Clad Models Raises Questions About Justification for Drag Show Ban

"My legislation is not guns on demand," Bost said Tuesday. "It would add one step so that veterans can have their day in court before they lose their constitutional right, as any American should expect."

But at Tuesday's hearing, VA officials argued against the bill by pointing to statistics showing correlations between suicidal ideation and financial issues, and that show suicide attempts involving firearms are more lethal than other methods.

The program at issue "protects some of our most vulnerable veterans, and we do believe that taking firearms away -- not us, but the process -- does protect our veterans," testified Ron Burke, the VA's deputy under secretary for oversight and policy. "Preventing veterans suicide is the No. 1 clinical focus for VA, and we believe that the process works."

Still, pressed repeatedly on whether the VA has empirical evidence that reporting veterans to the background check system has reduced suicide rates, Burke had no answer.

Since 1998, under its interpretation of the gun control legislation known as the Brady Law, the VA has reported the names of veterans appointed fiduciaries to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, which is the system used to determine whether someone is legally prohibited from buying a gun.

The VA will appoint a fiduciary to manage a veteran's financial affairs after determining a beneficiary is "mentally incompetent" under VA regulations. About 109,000 veterans or spouses are assigned those financial managers right now, Burke said.

In 2016, amid GOP efforts to end the practice of the VA reporting names to NICS, Congress passed a law aimed at giving veterans more recourse by requiring the department to notify beneficiaries before making a determination and giving the veterans an opportunity to contest the decision.

Under Bost's bill, dubbed the Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act, the VA would not be able to report someone to NICS solely on the basis that they were appointed a fiduciary without a judge's order saying the veteran is a danger to themselves and others.

A version of the bill was previously approved by the House when it was last under GOP control in 2018 but was never considered by the Senate. If passed by the House this year, it would likely stall again in the Democratic-controlled upper chamber.

At Tuesday's hearing, Burke repeatedly stressed that the decision to appoint a fiduciary is made based on medical evidence that is "clear, convincing and leaves no doubt as to the person's inability to manage their affairs."

Of the total veterans appointed a fiduciary, in 2022, just 33 sought to have their determination of mental incompetence reversed, Burke said. Of those 33, just 12 were determined to be competent based on new evidence.

Under GOP questioning, Burke also acknowledged that not everyone who cannot manage their financial affairs is a danger to themselves or others, but maintained the department is following current law in reporting names to NICS. He also stressed that a mental health diagnosis does not automatically lead to a finding of incompetence.

Republicans on the committee fumed at the department's position.

"The Veterans Administration does not have the authority to remove constitutional rights, now or ever," Rep. Derrick Van Orden, R-Wis., a retired Navy SEAL, said while raising his voice.

Bost's bill has received backing from some veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which also testified Tuesday.

"VA's practice of referring all veterans with fiduciaries to NICS has had a negative impact on veteran trust," said Kristina Keenan, the VFW's deputy legislative director. "Our members regularly tell us that they refuse to seek VA mental health care because they fear their firearms will be taken away. This has created a significant stigma around mental health and has created barriers to care."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: Lawmakers Want to Restore Gun Rights to Some Disabled Veterans

Story Continues