Congressional lawmakers reached a deal this week to send sweeping veterans suicide prevention legislation to the White House later this month, but the plan for now will abandon any serious discussion about gun safety for at-risk veterans.
The connection between veterans suicide and firearms safety was promoted by House lawmakers throughout the summer and included in the White House’s own new suicide prevention roadmap unveiled in June.
About 20 veterans and current service members die by suicide each day, a figure that has remained stubbornly consistent for the last decade despite federal efforts to address the problem. Firearms are involved in nearly 70 percent of veterans suicide deaths, according to VA statistics.
Mental health experts have argued that promoting safe storage of firearms and encouraging family members to limit at-risk veterans' access to weapons would save lives and produce quicker results on suicide prevention than many other long-term studies and staff hiring plans.
Will major veterans suicide prevention legislation pass this year, or get stalled by political fights?
A key Senate leader announced a breakthrough on the issue Wednesday, only to have House leaders dispute the deal a day later.
But the issue has long been a political point of controversy on Capitol Hill, even in the context of suicidal veterans. Several Republicans in the House have spoken out against the idea in recent months, arguing that any limits on gun ownership violates veterans constitutional rights.
Democratic leaders on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee had planned to include the lethal means provisions — along with dozens of other amendments — as part of the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, passed out of the Senate in early August.
The measure has received strong support from veterans groups who argue immediate action is needed on the issue of suicide prevention.
It would allow Veterans Affairs officials to award grants to community groups offering emergency intervention and suicide prevention initiatives (a major goal of President Donald Trump’s administration) as well as add more mental health staff to the department and improve data collection on veterans health.
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., initially resisted calls to fast-track the measure through his chamber and send it to the president without edits. But he relented this week, announcing plans to package the some of the amendments into a secondary suicide prevention package that will hopefully pass the Senate in coming weeks.
“I can promise that this isn’t going to be the last conversation or the only legislation we consider regarding veteran suicide prevention,” he said at a mark-up hearing on Thursday.
“We will pick up where we left off on lethal means training and the Zero Suicide demonstration. We still can do more to ensure women veterans and veterans of color have an easier pathway to VA benefits and health care.”
Included in the secondary package — dubbed the COMPACT Act — is Takano’s own bill to make VA mental health care services to all veterans, regardless of their discharge status.
House and Senate lawmakers will have to work out difference between their outreach plans in coming weeks in hopes of passing reform legislation by the end of 2020.
Advocates have argued that many veterans with other-than-honorable dismissals, sometimes caused by undiagnosed brain injuries or post-traumatic stress, are often among the veterans most vulnerable to suicidal thoughts, and better access to care could save them.
The COMPACT Act also includes several provisions related to training and assistance for veterans family members (designed to create stronger support networks for at-risk veterans), a new mandate that VA officials reach out to veterans every few years to ensure they are aware of benefits and health care options, and new training for VA police.
Takano said he hopes to send both the COMPACT Act and the Hannon Act to the House floor for passage next week. If the full House approves the bills, the Hannon Act would head to the White House to become law, while the COMPACT Act would need to be approved by the Senate before being sent to the president.
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kan., has not publicly commented on the deal this week, but said last week that he would work to fast track that type of package through his chamber.
Once signed into law, the suicide prevention grants for outside groups could begin within a few months. Lawmakers put a cap of $750,000 on those funds and prioritize projects focused on rural veterans and “medically under-served areas” of the country.