(Dominick Reuter/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

A bill moving through Congress could make it easier for veterans who can be considered mentally incompetent to carry a firearm and has pitted those concerned with suicide among veterans against others who say they have been unfairly stigmatized.

Under federal law, veterans who have been assigned fiduciaries — people who manage their finances — can be deemed mentally incompetent. Backers of the Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act say that the law has been applied too broadly against veterans who remain fit to carry a firearm.

But critics say the legislation flies in the face of statistics and scientific research that suggest that vulnerable veterans could be in harm’s way if it is easier for them to obtain guns.

The House passed the legislation last week by a vote of 240 to 175, and it will now move to the Senate. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), would prohibit the Department of Veterans Affairs from classifying a veteran as mentally incompetent after he or she has been assigned a fiduciary. That decision, supporters say, should be made by a judge, not the federal government.

“I strongly believe we must do everything in our power to protect the rights guaranteed to all Americans, especially the men and women who have served, by the Constitution,” Roe, chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement after the House passed the bill Thursday.

Under a Department of Veterans Affairs program, the agency appoints a fiduciary if it determines that a veteran — because of injury, disease or advanced age — is unable to manage his or her finances. That means the agency also can classify a veteran as mentally incompetent and submit their names to the FBI for inclusion in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database, banning them from buying or owning a firearm or ammunition.

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, named for former White House press secretary James Brady, who was shot during an attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, requires federal background checks for gun purchases from licensed dealers and says that anyone who’s “been adjudicated as a mental defective or been committed to a mental institution” cannot legally carry a gun.

VA said in a statement that federal law requires the agency to give information to the Justice Department regarding veterans it has deemed mentally incapable to manage their finances.

“VA notifies any veteran who may be deemed by VA to be mentally incapable of managing his or her own funds of the opportunity to contest this determination and also seek relief from the reporting requirements under the Brady Act, as required by law,” the agency said.

Roe’s bill, which could affect hundreds of thousands of veterans now prohibited from owning a firearm, would require a court hearing and a judge’s ruling before veterans are deemed mentally incompetent and before their names are added to the federal database. The bill states that a person who is “mentally incapacitated, deemed mentally incompetent” or experiences periods of blackouts shall not be “adjudicated as a mental defective” without a judge’s ruling.

Charles Schmidt, a national commander of the American Legion, which supports the bill, said in a Newsweek column Thursday that it merely transfers the power “to strip a veteran of their Second Amendment rights” from the federal government to the courts.

Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association, another supporter of the bill, said in a statement that needing assistance with personal finances does not equate to mental incompetence and that the right to bear arms should not be “arbitrarily revoked by a government bureaucrat.”

But retired U.S. Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who opposes the bill, said classifying someone as mentally incompetent doesn’t rely solely on the ability to manage finances.

“It’s based on the fact that someone is in a very, very tenuous position because of an illness and needs to be treated before they’re allowed to make major decisions that could financially wipe them out,” he said. “My mother reached a point where she can no longer manage her finances, and I had to do it for her.”

Chiarelli, who retired in 2012 after 40 years of service, is chief executive of a Seattle-based nonprofit that focuses on brain and mental health research.

“No one is against the Second Amendment. No one says these people, at any point in time, shouldn’t have access to their weapons,” said Chiarelli, whose work focuses on suicide prevention and post-traumatic stress disorder. “(But) bills like this and movements like this limit our ability to separate people from their weapons when they’re in personal crisis.”

In a letter written to Senate and House leaders, the Veterans Coalition for Common Sense called the bill “irresponsible and dangerous,” saying it would threaten the lives of those who need care, not weapons.

“When vulnerable veterans have access to firearms, they can do harm not only to themselves but also to family members and loved ones,” the group wrote, adding that priority should, instead, be placed on medical and counseling services.

They point to grim statistics: About 20 veterans died of suicide each day in 2014, according to numbers released last year by VA. About 66 percent of suicides among veterans involved guns, and such fatalities account for 18 percent of all adult suicides nationwide.

Chiarelli said suicides are largely impulsive and that easier access to weapons results in higher suicide rates.

According to a survey conducted by University of North Carolina psychiatry professor Eric Elbogen on a random sample of 1,090 post-9/11 veterans, a third of respondents said they were involved in an incident of physical aggression, while 11 percent engaged in acts of severe or lethal violence, the Military Times reported.

The National Center for PTSD, however, said that although post-traumatic stress is associated with increased risk of violence, most people who have it are not violent.

The debate about the effectiveness of services for veterans was reignited earlier this year when Esteban Santiago, an Iraq War veteran, allegedly shot and killed five people at the airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Santiago was admitted to a mental health facility two months before the January shooting. Authorities say he’d showed up at an FBI field office and told agents that the government was controlling his mind and forcing him to watch Islamic State videos.

One of the bill’s most vocal critics in the House, Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), said in a recent statement that the “hastily crafted” bill could affect more than 170,000 veterans who are currently prohibited from obtaining a firearm. More than 19,500 of them have schizophrenia, about 15,000 have post-traumatic stress disorder, and 11,000 have dementia.

“This bill would set a nearly impossible standard for VA to prevent a veteran who is at risk of harming themselves or others from purchasing a gun,” said Esty, who represents Newtown, where a gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

VA said the agency sends out letters to veterans whose names have been proposed for submission to the FBI. Veterans then have 60 days to contest the finding that they’re in need of a fiduciary. Hearings are optional if veterans prefer to make their case before a board. The agency makes the final decision.

The legislation is one of at least two bills that would make changes in VA. Both passed largely along party lines.

One other bill, also sponsored by Roe, would make it easier for the agency’s secretary to fire or suspend employees because of poor performance or misconduct. It passed 237 to 178 Thursday with only 10 Democratic votes.

President Trump has promised to overhaul VA, which he described as “the most corrupt agency” and “probably the most incompetently run agency.”

Last month, the president signed into law a bill that scrapped Obama-era regulations that made it harder for people with mental illness to buy guns. Under the rule that was overturned, the Social Security Administration can provide certain records on those found mentally incapable of managing their finances for inclusion in the federal database for background checks.


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