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Veterans' gun rights bill falls in the Senate

Apr. 17, 2013 - 06:23PM   |  
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The Senate failed Wednesday to pass legislation preventing veterans from losing gun ownership rights simply for being incapable of handling their financial affairs.

Under special rules for Senate debate on the gun bill, 60 votes were required for passage. The vote was 56-44.

Still, the vote by a majority of the Senate to revise gun rights for veterans could be a sign of support for free-standing bills pending before the House and Senate veterans' affairs committees that also would block the Veterans Affairs Department from reporting to the FBI the names of veterans determined to be “incompetent.” That is a term used to describe those who are appointed a fiduciary to pay their bills and manage their finances.

The amendment sought allow the VA to only report to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System if a judge, magistrate or other judicial authority determines a veteran is a danger to himself or others.

Wednesday's vote came on an amendment to S 649, the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act, after the Senate also defeated attempts to expand background checks for gun purchases and to ban the sale of military-style assault weapons

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who sponsored the Senate amendment, said current policy has led 129,000 veterans to be “deprived of their Second Amendment Rights to own firearms” without due process because they were declared financially “incompetent,” the term used by the VA for those appointed a fiduciary to handle their financial affairs.

The decision is made by a benefits administrator, not by a mental health professional, said Burr, ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. “The current process is arbitrary. It does not look at whether they represent a danger to themselves or to others, and it is in no way relevant to whether the individual should have access to firearms.”

The VA, however, stands by the current process.

In a statement submitted Tuesday to the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, where a free-standing version of the legislation is pending, the VA says current procedures allow a veteran to have firearms rights restored by either getting the incompetency determination reversed or by petitioning VA to have their firearms rights restored “on the basis that the individual poses no threat to public safety.”

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“VA has relief procedures in place, and we are fully committed to continuing to conduct these procedures in a timely and effective manner to fully protect the rights of our beneficiaries,” VA says. “Any person determined by a lawful authority to lack the mental capacity to manage his or her own affairs is subject to the same prohibition.”

By exempting veterans, the bill “would create a different standard for veterans and their survivors than that applicable to the rest of the population, and could raise public safety issues.”

Burr, though, said the petitioning process isn't working. Only 200 veterans have sought relief, he said. “Only six have been granted.”

“Why would only 200 people appeal this decision that was arbitrarily made? Well, the VA doesn't provide any help,” Burr said

“We have made it as difficult as we possibly can,” Burr said. “The veteran is on his or her own. Even the cost to appeal is absorbed by the veteran.”

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and sponsor of what he calls the Veterans' Second Amendment Protection Act, said current policy isn't fair to veterans. “Taking away a constitutional right is a serious action and one that should not be taken lightly, particularly when it concerns our nation's veterans,” Miller said.

The American Legion, the nation's largest veterans' group, supports changing the procedure. “It is both sad and ironic that the veteran community — a community in which each and every member swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States to include the Second Amendment — requires advocacy to maintain its constitutional right to bear arms,” the Legion says in a statement. “Unless deemed unfit to possess weapons by a judicial authority with the full benefit of due process, each veteran regardless of disability should maintain the right to possess a firearm.”

The Legion notes that hunting and target shooting are activities included in some of VA's own programs for disabled veterans, and also expresses concern that veterans might not seek treatment for problems such as post-traumatic stress because of “fear of repercussions such as confiscation of firearms.”

Miller's bill, S 602, would come to a vote in his committee in May.

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