While the White House, frustrated with congressional inaction, weighs its own crackdown on guns , the Senate's No. 2 Republican is looking to address the country's cycle of mass killings with mental health legislation that includes a stronger background check system.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the majority whip, believes the mental health angle is an opportunity for consensus. Other Republicans have signaled similar sentiment, but Cornyn is the most prominent of them. “This legislation is a product of my frustration with legislation that won’t actually solve any problems,” Cornyn told CQ Roll Call. “In other words, I look at all of the legislation that gets introduced and I wonder: 'OK, which of these incidents might have been prevented if this legislation had been law?' And there isn’t any.”
Cornyn Pushes Mental Health Measures in Wake of Oregon Shooting
After the defeat in 2013 of a background check bill in the wake of the 2012 Newtown, Conn., shootings, gun legislation has largely been a non-starter in Congress.
Cornyn likens the focus on gun bans and expanded background checks to “a shiny object to distract you from what the real problem is.” In Cornyn’s estimation, the solution lies in “helping people before they become a danger to themselves and to others.”
Among other things, Cornyn’s legislation would give families the ability to obtain a court order to compel compliance with psychiatric medication and visits, which he says might have helped prevent Newtown.
The bill would also provide states with incentives to better participate with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. On this, Cornyn points to the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter, who passed background checks despite having been found with mental health issues that were not reported in that system.
On Thursday, a group of Democratic senators introduced a group of principles that include closing background check loopholes, like those online and at gun shows , where buyers can arrange purchases from private individuals (licensed dealers are still subject to federal laws). The 2012 Colorado movie theater shooter utilized such loopholes. On this, Cornyn wouldn’t budge.
“If you’re in the business of selling firearms, you have to do the background checks,” Cornyn said. “It’s only in the case of a person-to-person transfer, friend, neighbor, family member, it’s become sort of an urban myth that this would somehow stop these mass shootings. They don’t.”
Staring down a presidential election cycle in 2016 with the Senate's balance of power at stake and government funding disputes likely to dominate at least the rest of this year, the window to pass legislation like Cornyn's narrows each day.
“We need to get a hearing,” Cornyn said. “Then we need to show [Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.] that there’s bipartisan support. And then I think that he would be inclined to bring it to the floor.”
The White House said Tuesday that if Republicans want to focus on mental health, they should urge states under Republican governance to accept the Affordable Care Act Medicaid expansion, which many have blocked. Cornyn doesn't think that's a solution.
“He wants to politicize everything, it’s just unbelievable,” Cornyn said. “The Supreme Court smacked him down on the compulsory Medicaid expansion and so now he’s trying to go another route, to use these tragedies to try to advance his Obamacare agenda. Those are really apples and oranges.”
Both sides of the debate tout the evidence most in their favor. Proponents of stronger gun control could evoke examples where stronger laws reduced homicides, like in Connecticut or in other countries. Opponents could point to cities like Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Chicago, which have strict gun laws but still suffer from armed violence.
Both sides are dug in, but Cornyn used a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul bill making its way through the Judiciary Committee as an example of what can happen if people are willing to budge a bit.
“That’s a pretty good model, not for getting everything you want, but for finding a consensus that will actually be bipartisan and actually has some likelihood of getting done," Cornyn said.
Asked whether he could tell the victims’ families he's doing everything he can to curb mass shootings, Cornyn said he has met with such families.
“I actually have done that,” Cornyn said, pointing to a 2013 meeting with family members of victims from the Newtown shooting. “Which is a tough thing to do. They’re grieving. They’re looking for solutions."
"But the response that I got when I talked to them and told them what I would like to try to do and it would actually have helped [the Sandy Hook shooter's] mother — get him compliant on his medication so he wouldn’t get sicker and sicker and become a danger to himself and others — they seemed to think that made sense. I’m happy to meet with those folks to try to explain where I think we can make some real progress.”
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