New gun legislation related to the Virginia Tech campus shooting has the National Rifle Association and a violence prevention group calling for a cease-fire in a long-running dispute as the two rally their lobbying efforts on the Hill.
The NRA is urging Congress to tighten loopholes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a government database that provides background checks on gun buyers. The changes, which stem from the Virginia Tech shooting last spring, would ensure that more mentally ill people are barred from purchasing firearms.
But some people currently barred by the NICS would be allowed to regain gun purchasing rights — a detail that has splintered alliances among gun violence groups.
In a strange partnership, the legislation is also being backed by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a longtime opponent of guns and most NRA policy moves. The Brady Campaign was the original champion of the NICS database. Lobbyists for the group aim to win passage of the bill around the six-month anniversary of the shootings this month.
“We’re working closely with our allies in the Senate and House to figure out how to get this thing through,” said Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke.
More than 50 Virginia Tech survivors and family members of the victims are scheduled to hold a press conference Tuesday on the steps of the Capitol, urging Congress to pass the bill.
The legislation requires states to regularly update records submitted to the NICS system, including criminal records and the mental health status of people who have been committed to mental institutions or deemed dangerous.
In the past, loopholes have allowed some records to slip past the database. Because one of the most glaring examples of the system’s failure was Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, the bill has earned accolades from the families of Virginia Tech victims.
Although a court declared Cho a danger to himself in 2005, his state court records never reached the NICS system, allowing him to purchase the guns that killed 32 students and teachers.
In a 2000 New York Times study that examined 100 rampage shootings, 47 percent of the killers had a history of mental health problems, and 42 percent had been seen by mental health professionals.
The silver lining for the NRA is that, for the first time, some people with NICS records could regain their gun purchasing rights if they were declared mentally stable.
This could return weapons to a number of NRA members, including veterans who have recovered from serious illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Criminals, however, would not be released from the list.
“For this first time, there will be a way for people to petition to get their rights back,” said Andrew Arulanandam, NRA public affairs director. “This is a win for gun owners.”
One of the biggest lobbies in the world, the NRA spent $900,000 on lobbying in the first quarter of 2007, and dropped $1.6 million on lobbying in all of 2006. The group donates almost solely to Republicans. Last year, 85 percent of its donations went toward GOP candidates.
Luckily for the NRA, the Democratic majority isn’t counting. Several powerful gun opponents, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), are backing the bill.
The NRA’s partnership with Democrats has confused many gun owners who view the bill as a new form of gun control — the type of law the NRA has spent millions to squash in the past.
Gun Owners of America, a 300,000-member group, has heavily criticized the NRA. Many gun owners view the bill as a Pandora’s box of restrictive gun control laws, and the group has launched grass-roots efforts across the nation, backed by military groups such as the Military Order of the Purple Heart and the Aerican Legion.
“You can’t pass a law every time there’s an incident,” said John Velleco, lobbyist for GOA. “Tough cases make bad laws. Supporters of this bill are pushing their agenda on the backs of the victims.”
GOA lobbyists are pushing Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the bill’s major opponent, to serve as the voice of gun owners. The bill was ready to reach a vote in the Senate last month until Coburn objected, saying he was concerned with the bill’s price tag of more than $1 billion.
But the lobbyists are facing an uphill battle. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), a strong gun rights and NRA advocate, supported the bill in the House, which passed it in June. Support from other pro-gun allies, such as Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), has not been readily available. Some political experts speculate that politicians are wary of voting against anything tied to Virginia Tech.
The GOA is urging politicians to drop concealed weapons bans from college campuses to prevent similar crimes.
“The best way to stop a crime is to shoot back,” said Erich Pratt, communications director for GOA. “It’s all about self-defense. This bill is disqualifying people from owning guns who have never committed a crime.”
Also up in arms are three gun violence groups that have severed themselves from the Brady Campaign and formed an alliance against the bill. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, the Violence Policy Center and the Legal Community Against Violence are warning politicians that re-arming former mental patients is a ticking time bomb.
“The bottom line is, the good in this bill is hypothetical, and the bad is unavoidable,” said Kristen Rand, the legislative director for the Violence Policy Center. “Most mass shootings are by people with a history of mental illness or military background. You’re taking the highest risk category possible and giving guns to them.”
The three organizations have been targeting Democrats, urging them to focus solely on strengthening the NICS system. The coalition said it was caught off guard when gun control advocates such as New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy chose to support the bill.
“It surprised me that they came to an agreement so quickly. We generally support the same policy,” Rand said.
The bill has also drawn criticism from a throng of mental health organizations, including the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and Mental Health America. These groups are worried the bill will discourage people from seeking treatment, further eroding the damaged mental health system.
Mental Health America lobbyist Ralph Ibson has urged Congress to rewrite the legislation based on a person’s history of violence, rather than a history of mental illness.
“The real lesson from Virginia Tech is that our mental health system is broken,” said Mental Health America President David Shern.