WASHINGTON (AP) — Should veterans deemed too mentally incompetent to handle their own financial affairs be prevented from buying a gun?
The issue, for a time last week, threatened to become the biggest sticking point in a $631 billion defense bill for reshaping a military that is disengaging from a decade of warfare.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., sought to amend the bill to stop the Veterans Affairs Department from putting the names of veterans deemed too mentally incompetent to handle their finances into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which prohibits them from buying or owning firearms.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., objected, saying the measure would make it easier for veterans with mental illness to own a gun, endangering themselves and others.
"I love our veterans, I vote for them all the time. They defend us," Schumer said. "If you are a veteran or not and you have been judged to be mentally infirm, you should not have a gun."
Currently, the VA appoints fiduciaries, often family members, to manage the pensions and disability benefits of veterans who are declared incompetent. When that happens, the department automatically enters the veteran's name in the Criminal Background Check System.
A core group of lawmakers led by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has for several years wanted to prohibit the VA from submitting those names to the gun-check registry unless a judge or magistrate deems the veteran to be a danger. This year's version of the bill has 21 co-sponsors. It passed the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee by voice vote, a tactic generally reserved for noncontroversial legislation. Coburn's amendment to the defense bill contained comparable language.
"All I am saying is, let them at least have their day in court if you are going to take away a fundamental right given under the Constitution," Coburn said in the Senate debate last Thursday night.
Congressional aides said Coburn will likely drop his effort to amend the defense bill with his proposal, but that he intends to try again on other bills coming to the Senate floor.
The number of veterans directly affected by the VA's policy doesn't appear to very large. Only 185 out of some 127,000 veterans added to the gun-check registry since 1998 have sought to have their names taken off, according to data that the VA shared with lawmakers during a hearing last June.