February 14, 2017
by Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. and Mike Feuer
The Senate should reject the gun lobby’s brazen attempt to tap into a market of seriously mentally ill Americans.
For America’s gun makers, business has literally never been better. Firearm sales hit an all-time high in 2016, according to FBI data. The National Rifle Association boasts that last November’s Black Friday marked a single-day record, with more than 185,000 separate transactions recorded.
Even in a nation with more firearms than adults, gun manufacturers are set on expanding our arsenal. “Our time is now,” proclaims NRA President Wayne LaPierre in a post-election video. “This is our historic moment to go on offense.”
The markets gun manufacturers are targeting as ripe for growth in 2017 appear to include individuals on terror watch lists, individuals who want to mute their gunshots with silencers — and now, remarkably — individuals suffering from serious mental illness.
Earlier this month, the 115th Congress voted to repeal a law which enables the Social Security Administration to add to the national background check system adults who have filed a claim for benefits for a mental disorder. The narrowly tailored provision applies only to individuals who suffer gravely enough that they are considered incapable of receiving their own benefit payments, and therefore receive benefit payments through a representative. Further taking into account these individuals’ Second Amendment rights, the law requires that affected persons be notified of their right to ask the Social Security Administration to be removed, and their right to appeal SSA’s determination in court.
The House has determined a restriction on selling guns to the gravely mentally ill presents an unacceptable barrier to market entry for the likes of Smith & Wesson. Rather than standing up for the business interests of gun makers, the Senate should put the interests of domestic partners, police officers and would-be mass shooting victims first.
As prosecutors, our business is public safety. And our experience at the helm of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence – a bipartisan coalition advancing prosecutorial and policy solutions to the crisis of gun violence in our cities and towns — informs us that people with serious mental illness should not have unfettered access to guns.
That is not because seriously mentally ill people are violent — in fact, the overwhelming majority are not. But consider, for example, that serious mental illness is closely related both to substance abuse disorder and depression, which are strongly associated with increased risk of suicide. Now consider that suicides account for more than six out of 10 firearm fatalities in America. Those suffering from grave mental illness in America need our help. They don’t need on-demand access to a gun.
To stem the carnage that gun violence inflicts on our residents, families and men and women of law enforcement, our background check system needs additional sources of data, not fewer. The Senate should reject the gun lobby’s brazen attempt to tap into a market of seriously mentally ill Americans.
Instead, following the lead of successful provisions in our states, Congress should:
- Allow law enforcement and family members of seriously mentally ill persons to petition a court for a Gun Violence Restraining Order,
- Prohibit patients who have been subject to involuntary mental health treatment from having access to guns, and
- Provide grants to local law enforcement, school administrators and emergency rooms to improve identification and treatment of mental illness.
These measures would do nothing to enhance gun makers’ bottom lines. Rather, they would enhance safety in our communities and help for those who need it most.
Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. is the Manhattan district attorney. Mike Feuer is the Los Angeles city attorney. Vance and Feuer are the founders and co-chairs of Prosecutors Against Gun Violence.