What The Media Should Know About GOP Sen. John Cornyn's NRA-Supported Bill To “Help Fix” The Background Check System

Media reporting on a National Rifle Association-backed bill introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) to change the national background check system for gun purchases should know that the bill would actually weaken the system by making it easier for some people with serious mental health issues to buy guns.

Cornyn Introduces Legislation He Says Will Improve The Background Check System

On Aug. 5, Cornyn Introduced “S. 2002. A Bill To Strengthen Our Mental Health System And Improve Public Safety.” [S. 2002 via Scribd, 8/5/15]

Cornyn Press Release: Proposed Legislation Will “Help Fix” The Background Check System. In an Aug. 5 press release, Cornyn's office claimed "[t]he Mental Health and Safe Communities Act will help fix the existing background check system without expanding it, increase the use of treatment-based alternatives for mentally-ill offenders, and improve crisis response and prevention by local officials." [Office Of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, 8/5/15]

Current Federal Law Prohibits People Who Have Been Involuntarily Committed From Buying A Gun Unless They Successfully Petition A Judge

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Includes Records Of People Disqualified From Gun Ownership Because Of Severe Mental Health Problems. The national background check system, NICS, seeks to implement a federal law that prohibits people who have been involuntarily committed from purchasing firearms. But in practice, many states only submit a fraction of disqualifying mental health records into NICS -- a fact that has prompted the introduction of several legislative proposals to try and improve those rates. [18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4) via the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, accessed 8/7/15, Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, accessed 8/7/15]

Analysis Of Legislation Shows That Cornyn's Proposal Will Actually Weaken The Background Check System

Center For American Progress Analysis: Cornyn's Bill “Would Make It Easier, Not Harder” For The Seriously Mentally Ill To Buy Guns. An analysis of Cornyn's bill by progressive think tank Center for American Progress (CAP) found that, on balance, Cornyn's proposal weakens the background check system because of provisions that make it easier for some people with severe mental health issues to buy guns:

The Mental Health and Safe Communities Act does have some provisions that would provide better resources to the law enforcement and mental health communities to address the current crisis in mental health care. However, by making it easier for individuals with serious mental illness to purchase guns, this bill is a significant step backward. It would endanger communities across the country, and make it easy for veterans suffering from mental illness to obtain guns. [Center for American Progress, 8/6/15]

CAP: Cornyn's Bill Would Weaken Existing Barriers To Gun Purchases By People Who Have Been Involuntarily Committed. While under current law individuals who have been involuntarily committed can restore their ability to purchase a gun by petitioning a judge, Cornyn's bill eliminates that requirement:

Current law prevents people who have been involuntarily committed due to severe mental illness from buying or possessing guns. Senator Cornyn's bill would weaken this important prohibition, and allow people to go straight from a psychiatric hospital following a period of involuntary commitment to purchase a gun at a gun store.

Under current law, if a person is involuntarily committed for psychiatric treatment or adjudicated mentally ill by a court, they are permanently prohibited from buying or possessing guns, unless they successfully petition a court to have their gun rights restored.

Senator Cornyn's bill would automatically restore the gun rights of individuals who are still potentially a danger to themselves or others immediately after their involuntary commitment order expires.

Since 1998, 19,010 people have attempted to purchase guns but have been denied by the FBI because they have been adjudicated mentally ill or ordered into involuntary psychiatric treatment. In 2010, 7.5 percent of state and federal denials were due to mental illness. [Center for American Progress, emphasis original, 8/6/15]

CAP: “Cornyn's Bill Would Lower The Threshold For When A Severely Mentally Ill Veteran Would Become Prohibited From Possessing A Gun.” Noting the “growing epidemic of veteran suicide,” CAP's analysis found that the proposed legislation would make it easier for veterans with severe mental health problems to purchase guns:

Senator Cornyn's bill would also make it easier for veterans with severe mental illness to purchase guns, despite evidence of the growing epidemic of veteran suicide.

Between 2005 and 2011, approximately 49,000 U.S. veterans committed suicide, which is nine times greater than the number of soldiers killed in combat during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

Access to firearms increases the risk that a suicide attempt will result in a fatality: 85 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm are fatal, while only 5 percent of suicide attempts using other methods are fatal.

Senator Cornyn's bill would lower the threshold for when a severely mentally ill veteran would become prohibited from possessing a gun, and establish an inadequate review process through the Department of Veterans Affairs that would not appropriately balance veterans' Second Amendment rights with ensuring that mentally ill veterans who pose a danger to themselves or to others do not have access to firearms. [Center for American Progress, emphasis original, 8/6/15]

Some Reporters Have Simply Repeated Cornyn's Claim That His Bill Will “Help Fix” The Background Check System

Politico: Cornyn “Is Pitching His Own Plan To Prevent The Mentally Ill From Obtaining Firearms.” Without mentioning that the bill contains provisions that could cause the records of individuals with severe mental health problems to be expunged from the background check system, Politico wrote, “The Senate's second most powerful Republican is pitching his own plan to prevent the mentally ill from obtaining firearms -- and he's gotten the National Rifle Association to endorse the measure.” The Aug. 5 article quoted Cornyn's claims about his bill but did not include a comment from opponents. [Politico, 8/5/15]

The Hill: Cornyn “Is Moving To Keep Guns Out Of The Hands Of People Who Are Mentally Ill Amid Growing Calls From Gun-Safety Advocates To Strengthen Background Checks.” The first line of an Aug, 5 article in The Hill credulously repeated Cornyn's claim that his bill will keep guns from people with severe mental health problems, and framed the proposed legislation as an unusual move for a Republican politician. It also noted that the bill “is backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), despite the gun lobby's fierce resistance to gun control policies” :

A top Senate Republican is moving to keep guns out of the hands of people who are mentally ill amid growing calls from gun-safety advocates to strengthen background checks after a series of high-profile mass shootings.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the second-ranking Senate Republican, will introduce legislation Wednesday designed to encourage local communities to identify gun applicants who are seriously mentally ill.

The Mental Health and Safe Communities Act is backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), despite the gun lobby's fierce resistance to gun control policies. Cornyn notes the legislation will “fix the existing background check system without expanding it.” [The Hill, 8/5/15]

Newsweek: “Cornyn's Measure Marks A Rare Effort By A Top Republican Legislator To Curb Gun Purchases.” An Aug. 5 Newsweek article claimed that Cornyn's bill would “curb gun purchases” and is “designed to block potentially threatening people from obtaining a firearm,” but said nothing about the fact that the proposed legislation would actually make it easier for some people with severe mental health problems to buy guns:

The U.S. Senate's No. 2 Republican leader, who is backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), proposed a gun bill on Wednesday designed to block potentially threatening people from obtaining a firearm.

Republican Senator John Cornyn from Texas wants to reward local communities and states for sending more information about potentially dangerous, mentally ill individuals to the federal background check system for firearm purchasers. A diverse group of organizations have endorsed the bill, including the NRA, which for decades has opposed measures leading to restrictions on firearms, according to Cornyn's office. The senator has an “A-plus” rating from the NRA for promoting and defending the Second Amendment.

The NRA did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment.

Cornyn's measure marks a rare effort by a top Republican legislator to curb gun purchases. [Newsweek, 8/5/15]