The Senate has approved a measure that would ease some veterans' access to guns, brushing aside objections from most Democrats and the Department of Veterans Affairs that doing so could hinder suicide prevention efforts.
The legislation would prohibit 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. The Senate passed the measure by Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., in a 53-45 vote Wednesday afternoon.
The VA reports the names of veterans who are deemed mentally incompetent to a national criminal background check database used during the purchase of firearms, but the practice has drawn criticism from gun rights advocates in Congress. The vote came hours before at least 18 people were killed in a mass shooting in Maine, where authorities have identified an Army reservist as a person of interest.
The Senate legislation was passed as an amendment to the annual VA spending bill, which must still be hashed out by both chambers of Congress before being passed into law.
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 were assigned those financial managers as of July, VA officials said at the time.
Upon Republicans retaking control of the House at the beginning of the year, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., said one of his top priorities was to pass a bill to bar the VA from reporting 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.
The VA, though, has firmly opposed the bill, pointing to statistics that show a correlation 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," Ron Burke, the VA's deputy under secretary for policy and oversight, testified at a House hearing earlier this year. "Preventing veterans suicide is the No. 1 clinical focus for VA, and we believe that the process works."
The proposal was included in the House-passed VA spending bill for fiscal 2024. But it was originally seen as unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.
But after Kennedy stalled passage of the Senate's version of the VA spending bill over demands for a vote on the gun rights bill, Democratic leadership agreed to hold a vote on the proposal as an amendment to the spending measure.
The amendment was approved with support from all Republican senators and five Democratic or Democrat-aligned senators, including Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont.
"It is not right that a D.C. bureaucrat at VA could take away a veteran's legal right to their firearms simply because they needed assistance managing their finances," Tester said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Tester is in a tough reelection battle where his Republican opponents have sought to tie him to Democratic-supported, gun control measures. All of the other Democrats or independents who typically vote with Democrats who supported the amendment are also up for reelection in 2024: Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Jacky Rosen, D-Nev.; Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz.; and Angus King, I-Maine.
Bost hailed the Senate vote as a victory for his priorities.
"Until today, a veteran who needs help managing their finances couldn't go deer hunting with their son because VA would automatically send their name to the FBI's NICS list, taking away their Second Amendment right without due process," Bost said in a statement. "That is wrong, and it's taken over 30 years for Congress to fix it."
Being included in both the Senate's and House's version of the VA spending bill increases the likelihood that it will become law. But Democratic opponents of the gun measure have vowed to fight to remove it during House-Senate negotiations on the final spending bill.
"We're not talking about people who just need some assistance with their financial affairs," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said on the Senate floor. "One-third of the veterans we're talking about in this category are diagnosed schizophrenics. And this amendment allows for every single one of them to have their gun rights restored.”
"People who are frankly more prone to suicide than the general population are now going to be able to get their hands on a weapon to kill themselves or others if we pass this," he said.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.