Should veterans deemed too mentally incompetent to handle their own financial affairs be prevented from buying a gun?
The issue, for a time last week, threatened to become the biggest sticking point in a $631 billion defense bill for reshaping a military that is disengaging from a decade of warfare.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., sought to amend the bill to stop the Veterans Affairs Department from putting the names of veterans deemed too mentally incompetent to handle their finances into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which prohibits them from buying or owning firearms.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., objected, saying the measure would make it easier for veterans with mental illness to own a gun, endangering themselves and others.
"I love our veterans, I vote for them all the time. They defend us," Schumer said. "If you are a veteran or not and you have been judged to be mentally infirm, you should not have a gun."
Currently, the VA appoints fiduciaries, often family members, to manage the pensions and disability benefits of veterans who are declared incompetent. When that happens, the department automatically enters the veteran's name in the Criminal Background Check System.
A core group of lawmakers led by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has for several years wanted to prohibit the VA from submitting those names to the gun-check registry unless a judge or magistrate deems the veteran to be a danger. This year's version of the bill has 21 co-sponsors. It passed the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee by voice vote, a tactic generally reserved for noncontroversial legislation. Coburn's amendment to the defense bill contained comparable language.
"All I am saying is, let them at least have their day in court if you are going to take away a fundamental right given under the Constitution," Coburn said in the Senate debate last Thursday night.
Congressional aides said Coburn will likely drop his effort to amend the defense bill with his proposal, but that he intends to try again on other bills coming to the Senate floor.
The number of veterans directly affected by the VA's policy doesn't appear to very large. Only 185 out of some 127,000 veterans added to the gun-check registry since 1998 have sought to have their names taken off, according to data that the VA shared with lawmakers during a hearing last June.
Still, the legislation over the years has attracted strong support from the National Rifle Association and various advocacy groups for veterans.
"We consider it an abject tragedy that so many of our veterans return home, after risking life and limb to defend our freedom, only to be stripped of their Second Amendment rights because they need help managing their compensation," Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, wrote last year in an editorial.
The NRA did not respond to queries from the AP about Coburn's latest effort.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said gun control advocates consider the VA's current policy reasonable.
"We're talking about people who have some form of disability to the extent that they're unable to manage their own affairs," Gross said. "If you're deemed unable to handle your own affairs, that's likely to constitute a high percentage of people who are dangerously mentally ill."
Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said veterans with a traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder but who pose no threat to others are possibly being barred from gun ownership. The current restrictions might even be a disincentive for veterans to seek needed treatment, he said.
"We want to remove these stigmas for mental health treatment. It's a combat injury," Tarantino said. "They wouldn't be doing this if you were missing your right hand, so they shouldn't be doing it if you're seeking treatment for post-traumatic-stress-disorder or traumatic brain injury."
VA officials have told lawmakers they believe veterans deemed incompetent already have adequate protections.
For example, they said, veterans can appeal the finding of incompetency based on new evidence. And even if the VA maintains a veteran is incompetent, he can petition the agency to have his firearm rights restored on the basis of not posing a threat to public safety.