Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
June 12, 2014
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New mental health-focused gun control bills are going nowhere quick

Recently introduced bills have little support

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Democratic legislators interested in addressing gun violence are trying out a new tactic, focusing on keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Following the deadly shootings in Santa Barbara in May, three pieces of legislation were introduced by California members of Congress, one in the Senate and two in the House, which would restrict mentally troubled people from owning or buying guns.

It’s part of a renewed push by members to get federal gun legislation passed after similar attempts failed in the Senate in 2013 after Sandy Hook. Instead of focusing on broad background check extensions, these bills focus only on gun control for those proven or suspected of being mentally unstable. The idea is that this seemingly uncontroversial goal could be a path to broader policies someday.

But there are two big problems. There’s no unified liberal consensus supporting the bills and they have virtually no Republican support.

If you haven’t heard much about Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D-CA) bill and Rep. Lois Capps’ (D-CA) companion bill, as well as Rep. Mike Thompson’s (D-CA) legislation, all introduced in the last two weeks, that’s because no one is talking about them – they are on the way-back burner.

 “I’m the Chair of the Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and we identified a number of areas where we thought we could make a difference to reduce gun violence,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, who introduced the Promoting Healthy Minds for Safer Communities Act. “There are competing mental health bills in the House and I wanted to thread the needle and do a complementary bill that focused on the gun aspect.”

Thompson’s bill, introduced May 30, aims to strengthen the mental health system by giving states grants to expand their early intervention and treatment services. At the same time, it would increase firearm prohibitions for people considered “at risk.” And it would expand the reporting of mental health records for patients to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, introduced a bill jointly with Rep. Louis Capps, D-CA, on the House side. The legislation goes a step further than just limiting gun purchases, by allowing law enforcement to take guns away from the unstable. The “Pause for Safety Act” would let family members and acquaintances apply for a “gun violence prevention order” that let police take away guns from the person believed to be a potential threat.

But all the bills have so far fallen flat. Between the three, there are 39 co-sponsors and none of them are Republicans.

“You aren’t going to have any gun violence bill pass this Congress. The gun lobby is so powerful and [Republicans] are not willing to bust the system,” Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-CA, former co-chair of the House Mental Health Caucus, told DecodeDC. “The power interests that will say ‘you are taking my guns away’ will create such a ruckus and upheaval that [members of Congress] aren’t willing to incur the wrath of their voters.”

Napolitano says she supports funding mental health programs on their own, like the one she would institute through her bill, the Mental Health in Schools Act, which if passed would give $200 million annually to up to 200 schools to address mental health issues on site. But she says it’s unreasonable to think any of the bills recently introduced have any chance of passing because of their gun control element.

One Republican member of the House is instead trying to push through legislation that deals solely with granting more funding to mental health systems and giving money to what he considers “the root of the problem.”

 Rep. Tim Murphy introduced his Helping Families in Mental Crisis Act in December. In his legislation he does not refer to guns or gun control and it has significant bi-partisan support– of its 89 co-sponsors 57 are Republicans and 32 are Democrats.

“If we focused only on one object and not the underlying disease, we are completely missing the point,” he said. “When we’re at the point of talking about guns it’s too late.”

So the Democrat’s new tactic is looking like it is going the way of past gun control efforts – nowhere.  Some republicans simply oppose new gun control legislation almost uniformly and others believe efforts to fix the mass shootings should be focused elsewhere. That hasn’t changed despite Columbine, Sandy Hook, Santa Barbara and a long list of other tragic mass murders.