Gun Bill Stalls over Concerns for Mentally Ill

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After a Virginia Tech student with a history of mental problems killed 32 people in a shooting rampage, the House of Representatives responded in June with legislation aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. The legislation is being blocked in the Senate over concerns about the mentally ill losing their gun rights.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Happy years gone by since Seung-Hui Cho, a student with a history of mental illness, went on a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech. That massacre spurred the House of Representatives to pass legislation in June. It aims to improve the reporting of mental health records to a national database used for background checks on gun buyers.

The bill has a backing of the National Rifle Association, but it's being held up in the Senate by one man.

NPR's David Welna has this story.

DAVID WELNA: On Tuesday, six months to the day after the slaughter at Virginia Tech, a few survivors and their parents held a news conference here at the U.S. capital. With them were more than a dozen other parents whose children had been slain.

Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Peter Reeves' daughter Mary was shot to death that nightmarish morning in her French class.

Lieutenant Colonel PETER REEVES (Retired; U.S. Army): So we are here today with a very simple message. It's a message for the Congress and for the Senate and for the House, and the message is this: Pass this bill. Send it to the president's desk, and do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

WELNA: The bill essentially rewards states for reporting cases of people deemed mentally ill by a court to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. The State of Virginia had not reported Virginia Tech killer Cho's mental history.

Joining the survivors was the bill's chief sponsor in the House, New York Democrat Carolyn McCarthy, who lost her husband in another shooting rampage. Mental illness alone, she said, is not enough to wind up in the NICS' database.

Representative CAROLYN McCARTHY (Democrat, New York): You have to be adjudicated. So if someone is on a medication because they're depressed, it does not mean they are losing their right to own a gun. If that happened, there wouldn't be anybody here in Congress being able to buy a gun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. McCARTHY: And we know there are a lot of people here in Congress that own guns.

WELNA: One of those lawmaking gun owners is Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. He has singlehandedly held up the background check bill in the Senate by putting what's known as a hold on it.

Coburn says he objects, in part, to the bill's cost - about a billion dollars. But what really bothers him, he says, is that military veterans who sought help for combat-related mental problems may end up in the NICS' database and be barred forever from buying guns.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): There's not a pathway that assures people get back their Second Amendment rights, and that has to be in the bill.

WELNA: The NRA has endorsed this legislation.

Sen. COBURN: That didn't matter to me. The fact is should the veterans - the very people who give us protection - have their rights preserved? And they should. And until that's done, I'm not lifting the hold.

WELNA: A hold is basically a threat to filibuster a bill or talk it to death. New York Democrat Charles Schumer is this bill's chief sponsor in the Senate. He says he's willing to call his colleague's bluff.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): If Senator Coburn chooses to filibuster, it could take weeks. And the Senate's schedule is crowded, but we have to make time for this.

WELNA: It takes 50 votes to stop a filibuster. You don't think you have those?

Sen. SCHUMER: I think we do but, as you know, he can get three different votes with 30-hour periods each. That's the issue. We're going to bring this to the floor if we have to.

WELNA: Schumer is counting on support for the bill from senators close to the National Rifle Association. Even though other gun owner groups oppose it, the bill has the NRA's endorsement because it gives people whose mental health has improved the chance to petition to have their names expunged from the next background check database.

For his part, Majority Leader Harry Reid says one way to get the stalled bill moving may be to let Senator Coburn offer an amendment addressing his concerns, then let the Senate work its well.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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