Vote Explanation on HR 1181

3/16/2017

We voted today on HR 1181, a bill that seeks to address access to guns by veterans who have been judged to be unable to manage their affairs and their finances by a healthcare professional at the VA.

This is one of the toughest votes I’ve taken, and I will tell you why.

Currently, the law says that a veteran who has a named fiduciary through the VA — because they have been judged incapable of managing their own affairs — will have their name included in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This makes it much harder for them to purchase a gun.

HR 1181 removes the requirement of forwarding this information to NICS and ensures that veterans in this situation will easily be able to buy a gun. I was initially persuaded by the arguments of many of my colleagues that this bill is necessary because current law might discourage veterans from seeking mental healthcare.

After all, with more than 20 veterans taking their lives each day, we want to do everything we can to persuade veterans to come in to the VA if they need mental health care. We don’t want them to have a reason not to come in, such as a fearing a mental incompetence determination that might keep them from purchasing a gun.

But as I talked with more of my colleagues today and had a chance to listen to more veterans who are concerned about suicide, I learned that this bill, while well intentioned, will likely do more harm than good. I voted against it.

These were some of the facts that I considered in coming to this conclusion:

  • More than 2/3rds of veteran suicides are committed through the use of a firearm.
  • There are tens of thousands of veterans diagnosed with dementia, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s who are on the NICS list, and who would now be able to purchase a firearm.
  • Last year we passed the 21st Century Cures Act which ensures due process protections for veterans who are in the process of having a fiduciary named for them, by providing the opportunity to present evidence, be represented by counsel at incompetency hearings, and present new evidence during the appeals process.

While the process to determine a veteran’s mental competence is not perfect, this bill would functionally remove any ability for the VA to keep veterans who are a danger to themselves from purchasing a firearm.

This was tough vote, because there are strong arguments on both sides. I was originally convinced that the bill would be helpful in ensuring that more veterans use VA mental health services. And I am sympathetic to the concern that the current process to add someone to the NICS list or to remove them is not perfect. But removing every veteran from that list and failing to provide an alternative method to ensuring that those who are a danger to themselves do not readily have the ability to buy a gun is not the way to do it.

One quick note regarding the stigma associated with seeking mental health care — it’s important to know that simply being diagnosed with a mental illness will not automatically add a veteran to the NICS list.

My gratitude to all the members of the committee who worked on this issue with me, and to the veterans and retired military leaders (see documents below) who gave me their thoughts and advice.

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