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Sandy Hook shooting reshapes the lobbying landscape on gun laws, mental health services

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The December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School is reshaping the lobbying landscape on gun laws and mental health services.

The classic lobbying nemeses over gun laws have been the National Rifle Association and the Washington gun control group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. But the Newtown tragedy is prompting some locally based advocacy groups that have previously been silent on gun control to consider stepping in.

Mental Health America, an alliance of mental health advocacy organizations, has never taken a stance on gun laws, instead focusing on early intervention and stigma issues related to mental illness. But the Alexandria-based group is now considering whether it should take a position on gun control, said the group’s president, Wayne Lindstrom.

“I think all the advocacy groups are now asking themselves whether [gun control] is something we should be more out front about than we have been in the past,” he said. “We’re asking that question as we speak.”

The Dec. 14 massacre, which left 20 elementary school children and six adults dead, will likely bring together a broader coalition of interest groups concerned about public safety, said Ilisa Halpern Paul, a health care lobbyist at Drinker Biddle & Reath who has lobbied on mental health and gun control issues. “You’ll start to see teachers’ groups step in, maybe even the PTAs. You may even start to see church groups, synagogues [get involved] ... This is going to be a broader community safety issue beyond the usual entrenched interest groups.”

Some of that is already happening. Last month, 105 individuals and organizations — including social workers, addiction and recovery centers, mental health advocates and parent education groups — signed a letter asking Congress to double the nation’s capacity for mental illness treatment and early intervention services.

Their biggest challenge, Paul said, will be overcoming the financial advantage of the gun lobby, one of the most well-financed and entrenched interest groups in Washington. In 2011, the Fairfax-based NRA and its lobbying arm, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, spent nearly $3 million in lobbying, which included pushing for proposals to loosen restrictions on gun ownership and sales. In the first nine months of 2012, the group spent $2.2 million on lobbying.

An NRA spokesperson did not comment on any specific lobbying tactics the group plans to take, but last week sent a letter to Congress saying they plan to “be a constructive voice” in the debate over gun bans — specifically the ban on assault weapons that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has vowed to introduce in the new Congress.

“Many in Washington will be tempted to paper over our national grief with quickly-passed new laws that will be broken by those bent on evil,” wrote Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. “Instead of that paper-thin answer to a deep cultural problem, Congress should have a broader discussion that includes mental health, school security, Hollywood’s violent marketing to our kids, as well as our Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.”

The letter also calls for an overhaul of “the bureaucratic nightmare that is our mental health system.”

The NEA speaks out

“They are the big 800-pound gorilla versus a very diverse and almost balkanized group of organizations that all care about [gun violence],” Paul said. “The mental health community and gun control community don’t have deep pockets. But they have the boots on the ground. They have voices of families who have been affected, they’ll have to figure out a way to galvanize that.”

They may get a boost from the District-based National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, which is calling for stricter gun laws and better funding to train mental health professionals in schools.

Hours after the NRA announced its support for putting armed police officers in every school in America, NEA president Dennis Van Roekel criticized the gun rights group for being “out of touch.”

“Greater access to mental health services, bullying prevention, and meaningful action on gun control— this is where we need to focus our efforts, not on staggeringly misguided ideas about filling our schools with firearms,” Van Roekel said in a statement.

The NEA in the past has supported tougher gun laws and more resources to train counselors, social workers, psychologists and other mental health professionals at schools.

“One of the things we’ll be stressing in the lobbying effort is what can be done to make the learning environment safe and secure,” Van Roekel said.

That will include supporting what Van Roekel calls “common sense” gun safety laws — such as requiring everyone who buys a gun to go through a background check process (there’s currently a loophole that allows people to buy guns at gun shows without going through a background check) — and backing Feinstein’s bill banning assault weapons.

Vice President Biden is leading a commission tasked with coming out with concrete measures to reduce gun violence by the end of this month.

© The Washington Post Company