Republican lawmakers on Tuesday accused Veterans Affairs leaders of depriving some veterans of their right to own firearms and promised changes in coming weeks, but Democratic critics say those proposed moves could end up leading to more suicides and self-harm among vulnerable veterans.
At issue is legislation proposed by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., dubbed the “Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act.” The measure would block VA officials from sharing some information with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a federal database used to determine whether an individual can buy firearms.
Bost said about 8,000 veterans were reported to the system last year, most for financial incompetence reasons and not criminal acts or specific mental health problems. But the VA action would bar all of those veterans from purchasing weapons regardless of the underlying issues.
“VA should not be able to take away a veteran’s Second Amendment rights because they need help managing their benefits,” Bost said at a hearing on the issue Tuesday. “Veterans should not be treated any differently than every other American citizen. Even criminals have to be convicted of a crime in a court of law before their names are reported to the system.”
The legislation would allow veterans to be reported to the background check database if a judge or other judicial authority rules that an individual veteran “is a danger to themselves or others.” Republican supporters said without such protections, veterans will avoid seeking help from VA for financial or mental health issues for fear of losing their constitutional rights.
But Democratic lawmakers — and Veterans Affairs officials — said that language is impractical, mandating extra rounds of bureaucracy to solve a nearly non-existent problem.
Ron Burke, Deputy Under Secretary for Oversight and Policy at VA, said that only 33 veterans last year appealed their fiduciary designation, and only 12 — fewer than half — had their status changed after review.
“There is not a large number of individuals seeking relief here,” he said.
Burke also said that VA does not report any individuals to the federal background check system for receiving mental health treatments, and battles against misinformation in the larger veterans community implying that seeking help can lead to guns being seized.
Committee ranking member Mark Takano, D-Calif., said he believes fear mongering by Republican lawmakers over the issue of veterans’ Second Amendment rights has been more damaging than the current rules.
“Firearms account for 70% of male veteran suicides and 50% of female veteran suicides,” he said. “Veterans are three times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. So, it begs the question; if we all care so deeply about preventing what is clearly an epidemic among veterans of death by suicide using a firearm, why would we pursue a bill … that puts more guns in the hands of the most vulnerable beneficiaries VA has?”
But Republican lawmakers argued that constitutional rights trump many of those concerns, and improving the process could result in more lives saved by increasing trust in VA services.
Versions of Bost’s bill have circulated around Capitol Hill for years with little success. This year, with Republicans holding the majority in the House, the measure has a good chance of advancing out of the chamber, putting more focus on the large issue of veterans’ Second Amendment rights.
Whether the measure can become law is less clear. Democratic lawmakers who hold the majority in the Senate have not shown support for the idea, and President Joe Biden has made gun control and suicide prevention key focuses of his administration.
About 17 veterans a day die by suicide, according to the latest data provided by Veterans Affairs officials. That number rises to roughly 20 a day when active-duty service members and reservists are included in the calculations.
Veterans or service members in need of emergency counseling can reach the Veterans Crisis line by dialing 988 and selecting option 1 after connecting to reach a VA staffer. In addition, veterans, troops and their family members can also text 988 or 838255 for help, or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.