NRA Opposes Administration's Plan to Broaden Reach of Mental Health-Related Gun Bans

Posted on April 11, 2014

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On Monday, NRA filed formal comments in opposition to a plan by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) to expand the categories of persons prohibited under federal law from acquiring or possessing firearms because of having been "adjudicated as a mental defective" or "committed to a mental institution."  The proposal is commonly referred to by its BATFE docket number, 51P.

NRA shares the goal of keeping firearms out of dangerous hands.  Its comment notes, however, that existing federal law on this issue casts a wide, undifferentiated net that snares masses of mostly harmless individuals with a much smaller group that may present an increased risk of violence.  The comment cites numerous sources that express the nearly universal opinion of mental health professionals that mental illness is not highly correlated with, predictive of, or frequently causally related to violence.  It also cites reports from mental health professionals, the FBI, and the Secret Service that acknowledge the futility of creating an accurate "profile" of persons who have no history of violence but present a risk of future harm.

NRA's comment additionally underscores the importance of the rights affected by these lifetime prohibitions, the wide range of state and federal procedures that potentially trigger them, and the difficulty (or outright impossibility) of prohibited persons achieving restoration of rights, even after full recovery.  Under existing federal regulations, a person who experienced a temporary reaction to a traumatic event or who has trouble handling household finances may well be treated the same as a violent psychopath.  Not only is this unjust and stigmatizing, it creates disincentives for those who need mental health treatment to seek it, increasing whatever risks are associated with untreated mental illness.    

NRA's comment explains in detail how 51P would worsen these problems. The proposal, for example, conflicts with federal appellate court precedent, which interprets the antiquated term "mental defective" in a much narrower way than BATFE does. It also disregards cases that recognize the fundamental rights protected by the Second Amendment cannot be abridged without adequate due process.  NRA's comment exposes the flaws in the justification BATFE provides for 51P, including the way it cherry picks case law and bits of legislative history that support a broad reading of the federal statute while ignoring other precedent that supports a narrow reading. 

Recognizing that scientific knowledge of mental illness has progressed and now undermines the Gun Control Act's broad prohibitions on the mentally ill, NRA urges BATFE to defer action on the rule and to wait for Congress to reexamine the issue in light of modern medical understanding of the link between mental illness and violence.  The comment provides a number of guidelines for statutory reform, including provisions aimed at swifter, more accurate, and readily-accessible diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.  It also suggests that individualized risk assessment may be a more effective means of protecting public safety than bans that affect large categories of people.

Finally, NRA's comment offers specific recommendations for regulatory reform under the current statutory scheme.  It advocates for more specific due process protections and individualized findings of dangerousness, expanding opportunities for restoration of rights, and interpreting the statutory terms in light of what they meant to the Congress that passed them.

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