When Iowa's Republicans overturned rule on gun checks for mentally ill

After yet another mass murder involving an assault weapon made national news, Senator Chuck Grassley told reporters on February 15, “we have not done a very good job of making sure that people that have mental reasons for not being able to handle a gun getting their name into the FBI files and we need to concentrate on that.” Similarly, Senator Joni Ernst said today that the U.S. needs more “focus” on mental illness, not gun control. (Not that she has any ideas on how to address that problem.)

The talking point is bogus, because people with mental illness aren’t more likely than others to commit violent crimes, and mental illness isn’t any more prevalent in the U.S. than in other countries that experience far fewer mass shootings.

But let’s leave that aside for the moment. A year ago, all of Iowa’s Republicans in Congress voted with their GOP colleagues to overturn “a sensible Obama administration rule designed to stop people with severe mental problems from buying guns.”

The New York Times editorial board described the rule in a commentary published on February 15, 2017.

It would have required the Social Security Administration to add about 75,000 people, currently on disability support, to the national background check database and deny them gun purchases. These individuals suffer schizophrenia, psychotic disorders and other problems to such an extent that they are unable to manage their financial affairs and other basic tasks without help.

Allowing them to buy guns poses an inordinate and needless risk to public safety. An existing law bars gun purchases to people “adjudicated as a mental defective” or involuntarily committed to a mental institution. But enforcement of that law has been spotty, because medical records often aren’t added to the federal databases — thus prompting the Obama administration to create the Social Security rule. Congress struck down the rule with Republican majorities — and some Democrats notably up for re-election next year — contending that the Second Amendment rights of these troubled, disabled individuals have to be the prime concern.

Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, envisioned people with “an eating disorder” being barred from buying a gun. To the contrary, the rule was focused narrowly on disabled individuals who require a trustee for personal management. They would have had the right to appeal. Senator Grassley himself noted last year the flaws in the background check database when he proposed greater cooperation among federal agencies with relevant information.

House Joint Resolution 40, striking down the rule, cleared the U.S. House on February 2, 2017, by a mostly party-line vote of 235 votes to 180 (roll call). Representatives Rod Blum (IA-01), David Young (IA-03), and Steve King (IA-04) all supported the measure. The lone Democrat in Iowa’s Congressional delegation, Dave Loebsack (IA-02), voted no.

Grassley, Ernst, and every other Senate Republican, joined by five members of the Democratic caucus, passed the same resolution on February 15, 2017 by 57 votes to 43 (roll call).

Press releases from Grassley and Ernst spun the vote as an act to protect Second Amendment and due process rights for Americans with disabilities. Blum, Young, and King didn’t issue written statements about the issue.

Like Republicans everywhere else, Iowa’s GOP members of Congress have nothing to offer but empty words every time someone commits an atrocity with an assault weapon. Ernst and Grassley voted down gun control bills after the loss of life in San Bernadino in late 2015 and after the June 2016 mass shooting in Orlando, which was then the country’s deadliest mass shooting. Blum, King, and Young voted in December 2017 to force every state “to recognize the concealed gun carry permits of visitors from other states”–even if those states have no restrictions whatsoever.

Lip service about “enforcing the laws we have” means nothing when members of Congress oppose any meaningful attempt to strengthen background checks or keep firearms away from those who should not possess them.

P.S.- The New York Times reported late last year that among current U.S. senators, Ernst is the sixth-ranking career recipient of National Rifle Association funds “through donations or spending to benefit the candidate,” having received $3,124,273 worth of NRA help. Young ranks third on the same list for current U.S. representatives, with $707,662 in direct contributions or spending to help him politically.

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