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Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty

Representing the 5th District of Connecticut

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On House Floor, Esty Leads Opposition to Legislation Removing Veterans’ Mental Health Records from Gun Background Check System

March 16, 2017
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty (CT-5) today led the floor opposition to H.R. 1181, the Veteran 2nd Amendment Protection Act. 

To view video of Esty’s opening statement, visit https://youtu.be/WyWlSwXfOPs.

Here is a transcript of Esty’s remarks, as delivered:

Mr. Speaker, I claim time in opposition to H.R. 1181 and yield myself such time as I may consume.

I recently joined the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs because of its bipartisan history of working to improve care for our veterans. And I stand ready to work with the committee, in particular with Chairman Roe, and with every member of this House to improve and work on the important issues that affect our veterans every day.

However, I cannot support this bill, and I strongly urge my colleagues to oppose it.

As this House knows all too well, there is a veterans suicide crisis in this country, a crisis that is enabled by the easy access to firearms. Just last week, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, that the issue of veterans suicide is one of his number-one priorities. And it needs to be a priority of this House as well.

Today, on this day that we have this debate, 20 brave men and women who have worn the uniform in service to this country will take their lives in suicide. And the vast majority of them will use a gun.

As folks all over the country who have helped veterans know, the means matter. Research has shown that more than 85% of suicide attempts with a firearm are ultimately fatal, compared with just 5% with any other means. And that’s why addressing the public health crisis in the veterans’ community demands a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to ensure that veterans in crisis do not have easy to guns and that they get the care that they need and deserve.

And yet today this House is voting on legislation that completely ignores the crisis that many of our most vulnerable veterans are facing.

Unfortunately, this bill was rushed to the floor, with no consideration in Committee, collaboration, or even time for all of us to understand its full implications. The majority scheduled H.R. 1181 for a vote in Committee last week, with the bare minimum of notice required, even having to move the start time of the mark-up to comply with the 48-hour notice requirement.

During last week’s Committee mark-up I raised the concern shared by many who work closely on this issue that H.R. 1181 would end up being applied retroactively. The result of this bill being applied retroactively would mean that if it should pass, more than 170,000 veterans currently prohibited from owning a firearm would be able to pass a background check and buy a gun. While the Chairman expressed his sincere intent and desire that this legislation should not be applied retroactively, it’s fair to say that reasonable people disagree on how this bill would be implemented.

This honest disagreement alone illustrates exactly why this House should be taking its time, on a bill that could have such a profound impact on our nation’s veterans. The fact of the matter is that should H.R. 1181 be signed into law, it would need to be read together with the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007, which requires – requires – federal agencies to update the records they have previously shared with NICS, meaning should this bill pass, the VA would be required to remove the 170,000 record they had previously shared with NICS, since none of those was approved by a court, nor did they meet the new standard established by this bill.

Now with respect to the text of the bill itself, the Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act, contrary to its name, would create an end-run around the firearms Mental Health Prohibitor that we have attempted to refine and improve since Congress passed the Brady Act nearly 20 years ago and the bipartisan NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007.

Put simply, this bill would make it easier, not harder, for those veterans in crisis to get access to a firearm, by establishing a new judicial requirement that is far higher than any other agency’s or department’s implementation of the Firearms Mental Health Prohibitor, and quite frankly would be impractical if not impossible for the VA to actually use. The VA is already strapped for resources, and it is unclear if it has the legal standing to initiate a legal proceeding such as that suggested in the bill.

As members of this House know very well, there has been a fierce debate in this country over the meaning and extent of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. But the question before this House today is not whether an American has a right to own a firearm. The Supreme Court has been very clear on this issue, and the controlling law has been settled.

However, Constitutional rights are not absolute. As the late Justice Scalia write in the controlling Supreme Court Heller decision on the Second Amendment, “The Second Amendment is not unlimited.” The question before this House is whether we are going to summarily overturn the VA’s efforts over the last 20 years to help prevent veteran suicide and protect veterans’ families by reporting the names of veterans to serious mental health issues to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System known as NICS.

Supporters of this legislation argue that the current process used by the VA to share mental health records with NICS is over inclusive, must be thrown out, and replaced with a process that ensures veteran’s due process rights.

I agree that the current process is over inclusive.  And I agree that we must do more to ensure veterans have sufficient notice, an opportunity to be heard, and a meaningful opportunity to appeal any decision that may impact their constitutional rights.

And I stand ready to work with my colleagues to more specifically tailor the application of the firearms background checks law as it relates to veterans, both prospectively and retroactively. But a wholesale elimination of the VA’s long-established practice to help keep guns out of the hands of veterans who are at serious risk of harming themselves or others is dangerous and misguided.

To be clear: of the 170,000 veterans currently prohibited from owning a firearm, as of 2015, almost 20,000 of them were diagnosed with schizophrenia, over 11,000 with dementia, and over 5,000 with Alzheimer’s.

For a veteran suffering with a significant mental health condition, like one of these, access to a firearm is a serious matter.

Moreover, just three months ago, this Congress passed bipartisan legislation that codified a process for how the VA can make a determination on the mental capacity of a veteran before that information can be sent to NICS.

The 21st Century Cures Act, which passed this House by a vote of 392-26, required a veteran to be provided notice of a proposed financial competency determination and given an opportunity to be heard, present evidence, and be represented at a hearing.

H.R. 1181 seeks to undo this carefully crafted compromise before we have even had a chance to study the impact of the 21st Century Cures Act or VA’s existing practices.

Mr. Speaker, at this time I would like to ask Unanimous Consent to submit for the record a letter signed by 12 veterans, including Retired Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, whose leadership and support for our military and veteran community is unquestioned, and who believe this bill could put mentally ill veterans in harm’s way by giving them easy access to firearms.

Mr. Speaker, I would also like to ask Unanimous Consent to submit for the record a letter from Everytown for Gun Safety and a coalition letter led by the Newtown Action Alliance signed by over 40 organizations from around the country, opposing this bill.

Finally, Mr. Speaker, I would also like to ask Unanimous Consent to submit for the record testimony from Brigadier General Stephen Xenakis, Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, and Richard Bonnie who were prepared to testify at a hearing that was cancelled on a similar bill before the Veterans’ Affairs Committee last Congress.

Mr. Speaker, in closing, I recognize that the current practice of information sharing between the VA and NICS is over inclusive and that alternatives should be explored that would more appropriately balance veterans’ 2nd Amendment rights with ensuring that veterans who pose a danger to themselves or to others do not have access to firearms.

This bill, however, was not considered through regular order and no genuine attempt was made to work across the aisle to craft a real solution that addressees the very real epidemic of veteran suicide.

I stand ready to work with the Chairman to address legitimate concerns regarding this process. In fact, just yesterday, I visited at length with VA Secretary Shulkin on how we can all work together to keep our veterans safe and get them the care and support they need.
                
But I cannot support any bill, especially one addressing an issue as important as veteran suicide, through this rushed process.

I ask all my colleagues to join me in opposing H.R. 1181. Our veterans put their lives on the line for our country. We shouldn’t put their lives and their families at risk when they need us most.

Mr. Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.

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