WASHINGTON — Since a severely mentally ill man rampaged through Virginia Tech last year, killing 32 people before turning a gun on himself, Congress and several states have been working to tighten rules on who can legally purchase a firearm.
But a push in the U.S. Senate would remove from the national background check the names of 115,000 veterans who have been declared "mentally defective" — and would prevent the Department of Veterans Affairs from adding any more names unless the agency goes through a judicial system.
The problem, says the senator behind the efforts, is that the veterans were added not because they were a danger to themselves or to others, but because they were assigned fiduciary guardians by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"This is a constitutional issue," said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "The (national database) is for criminals, not for folks who have troubles handling their own financial affairs."
His bill would allow the agency to submit only the names of those who have been declared dangerous by a judge, magistrate or other judicial authority.
Burr said he wants to protect Second Amendment rights but isn't trying to give guns to dangerously ill people.
"Clearly, we want to (include) people that reach the point of mental instability where access to firearms is not an option," Burr said.
Burr succeeded this summer in getting his measure tacked to a popular veterans health bill now headed to the full Senate floor.
But while Burr is supported by the National Rifle Association and several veterans groups, others fear the move could lead to an increase in gun deaths. Gun-control organizations argue that veterans have higher rates of suicide than non-veterans and so may be more at risk.
"To take this group out of the system and give them ready access to guns, that's just not a good idea," said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center in Washington. "It's a sad fact that veterans have increased risk of suicide and increased risk of mass shootings, but that's reality."
In the past decade, the Department of Veterans Affairs has sent about 115,000 names to the National Instant Criminals Background Check System, known as the NICS, under an agreement with the FBI.
The names include those veterans adjudicated mentally incompetent or who have been committed to a mental institution, but not others who are mentally ill, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs.
The national log is the database that gun shops use to check for names of those trying to legally purchase firearms. It was set up as part of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993.
Mark Seavey, a lobbyist for the American Legion, supports Burr's proposal and said it isn't right to lump veterans with financial troubles into the group of people on the no-buy list.
He also worries about broadly stereotyping veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder but still have control of their affairs.
"We didn't want to stigmatize people," Seavey said. "It should be anybody who actually is a threat to themselves or others. I think veterans as individuals ought to be given the constitutional rights they fought for."
With the highly publicized suicides of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with increasing reports of warriors suffering from mental trauma, the issue of taking away Second Amendment rights is sensitive to politicians.
In debating Burr's measure recently, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said he wants to fully respect veterans and their service.
"I feel an obligation to veterans to respect what they've done and what they've given and how they've suffered," Rockefeller said in a meeting of the Veterans' Affairs Committee. "And it just causes me not to want to oppose the ... amendment. In fact I very strongly don't want to oppose it."
Only Democratic Sens. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, who is the committee's chairman, and Patty Murray of Washington opposed the bill -- and then only because they wanted a fuller hearing process.