A major defense-spending bill hit an unexpected bump on its journey through the U.S. Senate over an amendment on veterans’ gun rights, which devolved into a heated floor debate and foreshadows a potential battle over Democrats’ vows to tweak the filibuster rules in the clubby, traditionally collegial body.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, wants veterans who have been deemed “mentally incompetent” to have their cases adjudicated by a judge — rather than the Department of Veterans Affairs, as happens currently — and argued that veterans who simply cannot support themselves financially are needlessly given the label and, as such, cannot buy or possess firearms.
“We’re not asking for anything big,” Mr. Coburn said Thursday evening on the Senate floor. “We’re just saying that if you’re going to take away the Second Amendment rights … they ought to have it adjudicated, rather than mandated by someone who’s unqualified to state that they should lose their rights.”
The late-night tussle served to pick at the scab of the ongoing debate over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s bid to reform the chamber’s filibuster rules to place limits on the minority party’s ability to hold up debate on legislation, however.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, objected to Mr. Coburn’s proposal once he found out it was part of a package of amendments to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act the body was to vote on.
“I love our veterans; I vote for them all the time, they defend us,” Mr. Schumer said. “But if you are mentally ill, whether you’re a veteran or not, just like if you’re a felon, if you’re a veteran or not, and you have been judged to be mentally infirm, you should not have a gun.”
After a similar plea from Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, and a warning from Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, that the move could embolden Democrats’ push for filibuster reforms, Mr. Coburn eventually backed off.
“There’s more here, frankly, than just a refusal to allow an amendment,” Mr. McCain said. “That is going to mean that it’s more likely that we have this showdown, which we think — many of us think — would be devastating to this institution and the way that it’s done business for a couple of hundred years.”
The quarrel over the broader bill and the filibuster continued on the Senate floor Monday when Mr. McCain dinged Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, when he alluded to Mr. Paul’s previous threats to filibuster the bill if there was not a vote on an amendment to ensure a trial to American citizens accused of terrorism. That provision was approved by the Senate last week.
The measure that sparked last week’s late-night imbroglio is also part of a still-pending sportsman’s bill that the Senate declined to vote on last week. Similar legislation has been proposed in past years, and a bill introduced by Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, and Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, passed the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs unanimously in September.
The debate on the measure should not be about gun control, but about veterans’ mental health, said Tom Tarantino, senior legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“If even one person will not go to seek the help they need and they fall through the cracks because we failed to remove the mental health stigma as much as possible, then we’ve failed,” he said. “Right now, what happened is someone pulled the thread of politics in something that should not political. And that thread’s starting to unravel.”
But Brian Malte with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said simply that if Mr. Coburn’s amendment passes, more than 100,000 people deemed medically incompetent would immediately be able to purchase guns. He also noted that the declaration is not absolute.
“There is due process,” Mr. Malte said. “Gun possession is allowed if competency is restored. It’s up to the professionals to make that determination.”
The 1993 Brady Bill established a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ enforcement regulations declared that those deemed mentally defective could not purchase or possess a firearm.
The Department of Veterans Affairs forwards the names of those labeled mentally incompetent to the FBI for inclusion in a national federal database, barring them from purchasing or carrying firearms.
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