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The NICS Improvement Bill: Myth and Reality

Friday, October 5, 2007

Some opponents of the “NICS Improvement Amendments Act” (H.R. 2640) have spent the last several months painting a picture of the bill that would rightly terrify gun owners—if it was true.

The opponents’ motive seems to be a totally unrealistic hope of undercutting or repealing the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) by ensuring that its records are inaccurate and incomplete. But make no mistake—an inaccurate and incomplete system only serves to delay and burden lawful gun buyers, while failing to screen those who are prohibited from possessing firearms under existing law.

Nonetheless, opponents of H.R. 2640 continue to spread misconceptions about the bill. The following are some of the common myths.

MYTH: “Millions of Americans will awake one day and find that they are suddenly barred from buying guns based upon decades old convictions of ‘misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence,’ or mental health adjudications that were later rescinded or expired.”

FACT: H.R. 2640 does not create any new classes of “prohibited persons.” The NRA does not, and will not, support the creation of new classes of prohibited persons. H.R. 2640 only requires reporting of available records on people who are prohibited from possessing firearms under existing law.

Also, H.R. 2640—for the first time—specifies that mental health adjudications may not be reported if they’ve been expunged, or if the person has received relief from the adjudication under the procedures required by the bill. In those cases, the mental adjudication or commitment “shall be deemed not to have occurred,” and therefore would not prohibit the person from possessing firearms.

MYTH: “As many as a quarter to a third of returning Iraq veterans could be prohibited from owning firearms—based solely on a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

FACT: The only veterans who would be reported to NICS under this bill due to mental health issues are—as with civilians—those who are adjudicated as incompetent or involuntarily committed to a mental institution.

A diagnosis alone is never enough; the person must be “adjudicated as a mental defective,” which is a legal term that implies a fair hearing process. The Veterans’ Administration has regulations that provide veterans with an opportunity for a hearing on those decisions, and an opportunity for multiple appeals—just as a civilian does in state court. Any records that don’t meet this standard could not be reported to NICS, and any deficient records that have already been provided would have to be removed.

Veteran and journalist Larry Scott (operator of the website www.vawatchdog.org) calls the allegation about veterans a “huge campaign of misinformation and scare tactics.” Scott points out that thousands of veterans who receive mental health care through the VA—but have not been found incompetent or involuntarily committed—are not currently reported to NICS, and wouldn’t be reported under H.R. 2640. (Scott’s analysis is available online at http://www.military.com/opinion/0,15202,151321_1,00.html?wh=wh.)

Last, but not least, H.R. 2640 also provides veterans and others their first opportunity in 15 years to seek “relief from disabilities” through either state or federal programs. Currently, no matter how successfully a person responds to treatment, there is no way for a person “adjudicated” incompetent or involuntarily committed to an institution to seek restoration of the right to possess a firearm.

MYTH: A child who has been diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder “can be banned for life from ever owning a gun as an adult.”

“Your ailing grandfather could have his entire gun collection seized, based only on a diagnosis of Alzheimer`s (and there goes the family inheritance).”

FACT: Again, a psychiatric or medical diagnosis alone is not an “adjudication” or “commitment.”

Critics base their concern on BATFE regulations that define an “adjudication” to include a decision by a “court, board, commission, or other lawful authority.” They claim any doctor could potentially be a “lawful authority.”

They are wrong. Not even the Clinton Administration took such an extreme position. In fact, the term “lawful authority” was apparently intended to cover various types of government panels that are similar to “courts, boards, or commissions.” Basic principles of legal interpretation require reading it that way. The term also doesn’t override the basic constitutional protections that come into play in decisions about a person’s mental health.

Finally, records of voluntary treatment also would not be available under federal and state health privacy laws, which H.R. 2640 also does not override.

MYTH: People who get voluntary drug or alcohol treatment would be prohibited from possessing guns.

FACT: Again, current BATFE regulations make clear that voluntary commitments do not affect a person’s right to arms. NRA (and, surely, the medical community) would vehemently oppose any proposal that would punish or deter a person getting needed voluntary treatment.

MYTH: A Pennsylvania man lost his right to possess firearms due to an “offhanded, tongue-in-cheek remark.”

FACT: This case does not hold up to close investigation. The person made comments on a college campus that were interpreted as threatening in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy; he was then briefly sent to a mental institution.

Opponents, however, have failed to mention that the man had been the subject of chronic complaints from his neighbors. (The “filth, mold, [and] mildew” in his apartment were so bad that the town declared it unfit for human habitation.) After his brief hospital stay, he was arrested for previously pointing a gun at his landlord and wiretapping his neighbors.

Despite these facts, it also appears he was only committed for a brief period of observation. Current BATFE regulations say that the term “committed to a mental institution” “does not include a person in a mental institution for observation.” Therefore, even in this extreme case, the person may not ultimately be prohibited from possessing firearms. Second Amendment scholar Clayton Cramer describes this case in a recent Shotgun News column (available online at http://www.claytoncramer.com/popular/HR%202640.htm) and reaches the same conclusion.

MYTH: “Relief from disability” provisions would require gun owners to spend a fortune in legal fees to win restoration of rights.

FACT: Relief programs are not that complicated. When BATFE (then just BATF) operated the relief from disabilities program, the application was a simple two-page form that a person could submit on his own behalf. The bureau approved about 60% of valid applications from 1981-91.

Pro-gun attorney Evan Nappen points out that the most extreme anti-gun groups now oppose H.R. 2640 simply because of the relief provisions. Nappen includes a sampling of their comments in his article on the bill (“Enough NRA Bashing”).

MYTH: The bill’s “relief from disability” provisions are useless because Congress has defunded the “relief” program.

FACT: The current ban on processing relief applications wouldn’t affect this bill. The appropriations rider (promoted in 1992 by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)) only restricts expenditures by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. H.R. 2640 requires relief programs to be set up and operated by agencies that make adjudications or commitments related to people’s mental health. BATFE doesn’t do that, but other agencies—especially the Veterans’ Administration—do. Naturally, NRA would strongly oppose any effort to remove funding from new “relief” programs set up under this widely supported bill.

MYTH: The bill must be anti-gun, because it was co-sponsored by anti-gun Members of Congress.

FACT: By this unreasonable standard, any bill with broad support in Congress must be a bad idea. NRA believes in working with legislators of all political persuasions if the end result will benefit lawful gun owners. Anti-gun Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) supported arming airline pilots against terrorists, but that program was (and is) a good idea nonetheless.

MYTH: The bill “was hatched in secret …and passed out of the House without even a roll call.”

FACT: No one asked for a roll call vote. This is not unusual. The House voted on H.R. 2640 under “suspension of the rules,” which allows passing widely supported bills by a two-thirds vote. (This procedure also helps prevent amendments—which in this case helped prevent anti-gun legislators from turning the bill into a “Christmas tree” for their agenda.)

After a debate in which only one House member opposed the bill, the House passed the bill by a voice vote. There is never a recorded vote in the House without a request from a House member. No one asked for one on H.R. 2640, again showing the widespread support for the bill.

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