Veterans' Gun Rights Amendment Included in Compromise Must-Pass VA Spending Bill

A dealer arranges handguns in a display case
In this Feb. 6, 2015, file photo, a dealer arranges handguns in a display case in advance of a show at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Veterans appointed a financial manager by the Department of Veterans Affairs won't automatically be barred from buying guns under must-pass legislation to fund the VA that Congress is expected to approve this week.

The legislation 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.

The provision -- a win for Republicans on Capitol Hill -- was included in a bipartisan compromise deal between the House and Senate unveiled Sunday that funds the VA, military construction and several other portions of the government for fiscal 2024. The deal could avert a potential partial government shutdown if it is passed by the end of the week.

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The most controversial policy riders included in earlier drafts of the VA and military construction funding bill, including GOP efforts to block the VA's abortion policy and bar gender-affirming care for transgender veterans, were not included in the compromise deal.

Also excluded from the deal were bipartisan efforts to allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana in states where it is legal.

But Republicans scored a win with the veterans' gun rights provision.

Under existing VA policy, the department reports the names of veterans for whom it appoints fiduciaries to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, 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 if it determines 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.

Now, under the provision included in the spending deal, the VA will have to get a judge's order that a veteran is a danger to themselves or others before reporting a name to NICS.

"For far too long, the men and women who have fought for all Americans' constitutional rights were wrongfully treated differently when it came to their own rights," House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., said in a statement Sunday applauding the amendment's inclusion in the deal. "No veteran should lose their constitutional right to bear arms simply because they need help managing their finances, and if they are a danger to themselves or others, a judge should make that decision -- not a VA bureaucrat."

The VA has firmly opposed making it harder to report veterans with fiduciaries to NICS, pointing to statistics that show both a correlation between suicidal ideation and financial issues, and that suicide attempts involving firearms are more lethal than other methods.

While the provision was a Republican priority, it also garnered the support of some moderate Democrats in tough reelection battles, including Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont. Prior to the release of the deal, Tester pushed negotiators to include the gun rights provision.

"Veterans have made it clear that VA's current practice is pushing some veterans away from the mental health care they need," Tester wrote in a letter to Senate appropriators last week. "Veterans who have honorably served our country should not have their Second Amendment right taken away by federal bureaucrats without their day in court."

Meanwhile, the legislative deal could provide much-needed funding.

The fiscal year started in October, but Congress has repeatedly passed stopgap measures that simply extended last year's funding levels as lawmakers fought over contentious policy issues such as abortion. The current stopgap expires Friday for part of the government, including the VA, and March 22 for the rest of the government, including the Pentagon. That means Congress must approve the deal unveiled Sunday by this Friday to prevent those agencies from shutting down.

The compromise deal would provide the VA $135 billion in discretionary funding and $172.5 billion in mandatory funding. That includes $121 billion for VA medical care, a $2.3 billion bump over fiscal 2023.

"This bill honors the sacred obligation we have to take care of our veterans when they come home by fully funding veterans' medical care and benefits and delivering essential resources VA needs to operate," Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement.

Those numbers are in line with an agreement lawmakers reached last year to set budget caps in exchange for preventing a U.S. debt default. Under that deal, lawmakers agreed to follow President Joe Biden's budget request for the VA for fiscal 2024 after Democrats and Republicans sparred over whether the GOP's desire to cut domestic spending would mean cuts to the VA.

The VA medical care funding in the deal unveiled this weekend includes $16.2 billion for mental health care; $3.1 billion to prevent veteran homelessness; $990 million for health care specifically for women veterans; and $2.4 billion for the caregivers program, according to summaries from the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Also included in the deal is $18.7 billion for military construction, which is $2 billion more than the administration requested.

The military construction funding includes $662 million to design and build more than a dozen new barracks, and $2 billion to renovate and upgrade family housing, as well as to increase oversight of privatized family housing, according to the summaries. Both barracks and privatized family housing have faced scrutiny in recent years for deteriorating and unhealthy conditions, such as rampant mold.

Related: Bill Giving Veterans Deemed 'Mentally Incompetent' Easier Access to Guns Gains Steam with Senate Approval

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