Burchett eyes new gun restrictions for those with mental illness
Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) said Thursday that he’s seeking new gun restrictions for certain people with mental illness in the wake of this week’s deadly shooting at a Nashville, Tennessee, elementary school.
Burchett had stirred a heap of controversy earlier in the week after telling reporters that congressional efforts to prevent gun violence are futile because “evil” people “are going to do evil things.”
But on Thursday, after days of blistering scrutiny, Burchett said he’s now in discussions with some Democrats in search of legislation designed to keep firearms from the hands of those with violent intentions.
“We can issue press releases all we want, but we’ve got to find some meaningful legislation, that’s the bottom line. We’ve got to come to the table,” Burchett told reporters just outside the Capitol as the House was leaving Washington for the long spring recess.
“I spoke with several Democrats yesterday about how something would look, and I talked about — floated — ideas about mental health.”
Officials with the Nashville Police Department have identified the shooter as a former student of the private school, 28-year-old Audrey Hale. They said Hale, who was shot and killed by police inside the school, was being treated for an emotional disorder. Authorities have not linked the shooting to that disorder, however.
Burchett, who represents Knoxville, which lies almost 200 miles east of Nashville, said the violence committed against young children is evidence enough that Hale suffered from mental illness.
“Obviously, a mentally ill girl shot up a school in Nashville, Tenn. There’s just no question about it: She was mentally ill,” he said.
Questions of Hale’s gender have also entered the debate. According to social media accounts, Hale identified as a man and used male pronouns. Those dynamics have been acknowledged by Nashville law enforcers, who nonetheless have continued to refer to Hale as a woman.
Democrats have hammered the GOP’s focus on mental health, noting that other countries have comparable rates of mental illness, but without the gun violence epidemic that plagues the United States.
“For those people who say, ‘Well, it’s mental health’ — are our people 57 times as mentally ill as people in other countries?” asked Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over gun laws.
Gun safety debate roars back
A balloon with names of the victims is seen at a memorial at the entrance to The Covenant School on Wednesday, March 29, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Monday’s deadly shooting at the Christian elementary school in an upscale Nashville neighborhood, which left six people dead, including three nine-year-old students, has again prompted a gun safety debate on Capitol Hill.
Democrats have responded with new calls for tougher gun laws, including proposals to expand background checks and ban military-style semi-automatic rifles, like those allegedly used in Nashville.
“House Democrats believe that weapons of war, which are not used to hunt deer but are used to hunt human beings and slaughter innocent children, do not belong in our communities across this country,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said Thursday.
Yet those reforms are opposed by virtually all House Republicans, who control the lower chamber and want to focus the debate instead on efforts to fortify schools and treat mental health problems.
“Before they even know the facts, the first thing they talk about is taking guns away from law-abiding citizens,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said Wednesday. “And that’s not the answer.”
Under current federal law, licensed gun sellers must screen prospective buyers through a federal database to root out people prohibited from owning firearms, a list that includes those found by the courts to be severely mentally ill.
Congress last year had enhanced those screenings, adopting a package of gun reforms — the most significant in three decades — that included several provisions related to mental health. The law requires authorities to screen the mental health records of prospective gun buyers under the age of 21, and provides hundreds of millions of dollars to states for programs designed to keep firearms from the violently mentally ill.
Privacy protections may collide with registries
Burchett’s search for a legislative response to the Nashville shooting marks a shift from his initial reaction to the tragedy earlier in the week, when he suggested Congress is powerless to prevent mass shootings.
“It’s a horrible, horrible situation,” Burchett had told reporters on Monday. “And we’re not gonna fix it. Criminals are gonna be criminals.”
Burchett did not specify what additional legislative reforms he’s eyeing, and he acknowledged the difficulty of adopting gun restrictions for mental health patients. Not only are a vast majority of those people nonviolent, but federal laws — most notably the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA — apply strict privacy protections when it comes to the sharing and handling of patients’ medical records.
“Of course, you have HIPAA violations there, and I understand that. But it seems that we could get our lawyers and the doctors together, and the mental health experts, and come up with something that would be meaningful,” Burchett said.
“Honestly I don’t know what that would look like with HIPAA,” he continued. “You talk of a national registry, but then you’d have folks that have mental illnesses on a national registry, and the civil libertarians would say that’s not the way to go.”
Doctors, he added, “rightfully are very guarded keeping their clients off of some registry.”
The Nashville tragedy has focused attention on another reform proposal, known as red flag laws, which empower courts to issue protective orders barring people from buying or possessing firearms if a judge deems them to be a threat to themselves or others.
According to Nashville’s police chief, Hale’s parents “felt [Hale] should not own weapons.”
Burchett on Thursday questioned the effectiveness of red flag laws, suggesting they would act only to delay violent attacks, not prevent them. His discussions with Democrats this week were focused instead on ways to block gun sales to the violently mentally ill.
“That was what it was all about, was firearms, and mentally ill people and restricting their ability to get them,” he said.
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