By Peter Sullivan
February 10, 2016
Partisan tensions over gun control popped up during a Senate hearing on mental healthcare reform Wednesday, threatening the effort to find a bipartisan path forward.
The Senate Judiciary Committee examined a bill from Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, that seeks to increase treatment for mentally ill people as an alternative to imprisonment — a bipartisan goal.
But Democrats have argued that other sections of the bill would make it easier for mentally ill people to get guns, including tougher requirements on a full judicial hearing before someone can be banned from buying firearms because of mental illness.
“Some of the provisions in Sen. Cornyn’s bill would make it easier, not harder, for mentally ill individuals to access firearms,” Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, said Wednesday. “That is the opposite direction from which we should be moving."
“I’d like to make clear while there’s broad bipartisan consensus for provisions that include how we treat mental illness, that consensus does not exist for provisions that make it easier for mentally ill individuals to get guns,” Schumer added.
Cornyn responded: “Nothing in my legislation makes it easier for mentally ill people to get access to firearms. Nothing.”
The divisive politics of gun control have long complicated efforts to move forward on mental healthcare reform, which has been a source of hope for bipartisan agreement. Democrats have been aggravated that Republicans consistently point to overhauling heathcare for the mentally ill as a response to mass shootings rather than new gun control laws.
The controversial gun-related provisions of Cornyn’s bill are a stumbling block for a Senate effort address the issue this year. Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) have introduced a bipartisan bill that steers clear of the issue of guns, a version of which is expected to move through the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
Cornyn said that he has talked with HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) about eventually combining the bills, a prospect that makes Democrats wary.
“I hope what we can ultimately do, and I’ve talked to Senator Alexander about this, is putting together these various pieces into a piece of consensus legislation that we might be able to pass with good results,” he said.
Despite the tensions, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), an influential voice on gun control — the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place in his state — said he hoped a bipartisan agreement could be found.
“I am hopeful that we can resolve those issues so that both sides can be satisfied,” Blumenthal said.
Beyond the issue of guns, both parties agreed that there is a problem to be addressed of too many mentally ill people being imprisoned instead of receiving treatment.
As many as 20 percent of U.S. prison inmates are estimated to have serious mental illness.
Cornyn’s bill focuses on alternative paths such as mental health courts, where people can enter court-supervised treatment instead of jail.
But Democrats argued that more funding for mental health programs is also needed, and Cornyn pointed to existing funds that could be reallocated.
“We gotta not just talk the talk, we gotta walk the walk, and that means money,” Schumer said.