NEW VETERANS SECRETARY JAMES PEAKE WILL FACE TREMENDOUS CHALLENGE IMPLEMENTING NEW GUN BACKGROUND CHECK SYSTEM
Joint Release From Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and Violence Policy Center
Washington, DC - The Bush Administration’s new incoming Secretary of Veterans Affairs, James Peake, will almost immediately be faced with implementing a program to allow veterans currently prohibited from buying guns for mental health reasons to regain the ability to legally acquire firearms. The just-passed “NICS Improvement Act” requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a “relief from disability” program to allow persons now prohibited from possessing a firearm because they have “been adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution” to apply to have their bar on firearms possession removed. The Secretary will have only 120 days to implement the new program. More than 116,000 veterans are currently eligible to apply.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) used to run a similar program that, in addition to those with mental disabilities, even allowed felons to apply for “relief.” Annual costs for the ATF program ballooned to more than $4 million in 1991, with an average cost of $4,800 per applicant and 43 full-time employees dedicated to processing the applications.
Congress shut down the ATF program in 1992 because of its high cost, inefficiency, and threat to public safety. The VA is also tasked with setting up a new system to determine which records of veterans with mental health disabilities should be submitted to the background check system based on vague standards such as whether they have completed treatment or monitoring. This rule replaces the current permanent bar on firearm possession by mentally disabled veterans with temporary restrictions.
The Secretary will face tremendous challenges in attempting to craft new rules that will work to protect veterans and public safety, especially working in such a short time frame. According to research published earlier this year, male U.S. veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide as men with no military service and are more likely to kill themselves with a gun than others who commit suicide. The men with military background were 58 percent more likely to have used a firearm to kill themselves than non-veterans who committed suicide. Veterans are more likely to own guns than the general population.
Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, states, “It is deeply disturbing that the gun lobby has coerced Congress into providing resources to rearm mentally disabled veterans during a time when the VA is struggling to provide adequate mental health care to all those in need.”
Veterans with mental health problems may present special risks for gun violence. In 2000, the New York Times examined 100 rampage shootings and found that the majority (52 percent) of such killers had been in the military. The Times’ review also found that 47 percent of rampage killers had a history of mental problems, with 42 percent having been seen by mental health professionals.
Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, states, “Congress should be spending its time doing more to provide veterans with the mental health services they need, not devising new ways to put guns back into their hands with the potential of placing themselves, their families, and the general public at increased risk.”
|The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence was founded in 1975 and is composed of 45 civic, professional and religious organizations and 100,000 individual members working to reduce gun violence. Our mission is to stop gun violence by fostering effective community and national action. For more information about the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, visit www.csgv.org.|
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