NRA Background Checks Alternative Gains Momentum

By John Gramlich, CQ Roll Call April 16, 2013 Momentum is building for a bipartisan background checks plan backed by the National Rifle Association — and opposed by gun control groups — even as it slows for the proposal being pushed by Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa. The NRA-supported proposal (S 480) is co-sponsored by a potentially influential group of senators, among them Democrats Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. It would not expand the background check system so it applies to more gun sales, as the ManchinToomey proposal would do. Instead, it seeks to increase the number of mental-health records that are shared with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, a federal database of prohibited gun buyers. The proposal was introduced March 6 and has attracted scant attention since then, even as the Manchin-Toomey plan has dominated the headlines as a potential breakthrough on guns. But this week, the Manchin-Toomey measure has struggled to find the 60 votes it needs, and the NRAbacked proposal has quietly picked up steam. Graham hopes to offer the plan as an amendment to broader gun legislation (S 649) that is being debated on the Senate floor this week. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., came out in support of the mental-health-records measure on Monday, attaching his name to a list of co-sponsors that now also includes GOP Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Dean Heller of Nevada and Rob Portman of Ohio. All five were seen as possible “yes” votes for the Manchin-Toomey proposal, but so far, only McCain has indicated that he will vote for that measure. Alexander, Chambliss and Portman have come out against it, while Heller is still reviewing it. The mental-health-records proposal is also co-sponsored by Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, indicating that the plan has the support of the Senate GOP leadership. The two Republican senators who first introduced the bill, Flake and Graham, have cast their measure as a competitor to the Manchin-Toomey plan, which both of them intend to oppose. Begich and Pryor, the Democratic co-sponsors of the bill, are expected to oppose the Manchin-Toomey proposal as well and could persuade other Democrats from gun-friendly states, such as Max Baucus of Montana, to support their plan instead.

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“Instead of expanding a broken background check system, let’s fix it,” Graham said in a statement this week. “I have bipartisan legislation which would accomplish that goal. I hope the Senate will soon debate and approve my legislation.” Flake said in a Facebook post late Monday that the mental-health-records plan is “preferable, and more workable, than the mental-illness provisions in Manchin-Toomey.” But gun control groups, which have lined up behind the Manchin-Toomey plan, strongly oppose the Graham proposal and argue that it is counterproductive and even dangerous. The plan “would endanger the public by weakening the NICS database when it needs to be strengthened,” Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the gun control group co-founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said in a statement. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, another influential gun control group, is currently reviewing the proposal and is expected to reach a similar conclusion, an official with the group said. Details Are Questioned Mark Glaze, the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said in a statement that the NRA-supported plan is a bad idea even though it “purports to clarify and increase mental -health-record submissions to the gun background check system” — a goal that Democrats and Republicans alike share. Indeed, the plan originally had the support of two unlikely allies: Cornyn, a strong gun rights supporter, and Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, who has been one of the Se nate’s most outspoken proponents of tougher gun laws after the fatal shooting at an elementary school in his home state in December. Blumenthal, however, yanked his name from the list of co-sponsors on April 8 after being briefed on the details of the legislation, according to several people familiar with his decision. According to its supporters, the plan would increase the number of mental-health records in the NICS database by revising outdated definitions of the kinds of people who should be barred from owning firearms. “This bill will create accurate definitions of those who pose serious threats and should be barred from the ability to buy or possess a firearm while protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens and veterans,” Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement when the proposal was introduced. But the mayors’ group is calling attention to a number of specific concerns with the bill, which it says would result in fewer, not more, records being shared with the NICS. Current law, for example, bans gun ownership by those who have been deemed to be a danger to themselves or to others. Graham’s bill would raise that threshold by banning firearms for those deemed to be an “imminent” danger to themselves or to others. Proving “imminence” is a high legal hurdle that would result in fewer disqualifying records being entered into the data base, the mayors’ group argues.
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In addition, since most of the mental health records currently in the database were not subject to the “imminence” standard when they were added to the system, Graham’s legislation raises questions about whether those records would need to be removed if the proposal were to become law, the group says. “If S 480 passes, all current mental-health records in the NICS database will need to be reviewed, and most people who are currently prohibited for posing a danger to themselves or others will have their gun rights restored because their records do not specify imminence ,” the group’s fact sheet says. Among the other provisions that the mayors’ group considers dangerous is one that would allow gun ownership rights to be restored — “automatically and immediately” — after someone who has been involuntarily treated at a mental institution is released from care. The bill “would in fact reduce the number of vital records in the system by effectively eliminating the prohibition [on gun ownership] on people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital,” the fact sheet warns. Flake took issue Tuesday with the group’s characterization of his legislation, particularly with the contention that fewer records would be shared with the database. “I just disagree completely,” he said.

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