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WASHINGTON — U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) urged Senate Republicans on Tuesday to stop their ill-conceived plan to weaken the National Instant Criminal Background Check system (NICS) and reverse a gun safety measure recently finalized by the Obama administration to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of some individuals with serious mental illness. Murphy criticized Senate Republicans – who have insisted on enforcing existing gun laws – for now attempting to weaken those laws.
Tomorrow, the U.S. Senate is expected to vote on H.J.Res.40, which would undermine the NICS and prohibit blocking the sale of firearms to individuals whom the Social Security Administration deemed unfit to manage their affairs as a result of their mental impairment.
The full text of Murphy’s speech is below:
Thank you, Mr. President.
I've heard my Republican friends tell those of us who want the laws of this country changed to protect our constituents against gun violence, that what we should focus on is enforcing the existing law. That we don't need any new laws, all we need to do is focus on enforcing the existing law.
Senator Wyden said he wished he had a dime for every time he has been told that our focus should be on background checks. I wish I had a dime every time Republicans told us to focus on the existing law. Yet, I would also be a rich man every time Republicans come down to the floor and try to undermine the existing law, try to rewrite the existing law to make it harder in order to enforce it.
The Appropriations Act is, on an annual basis, loaded up with riders that hamstring enforcement agencies. The CRA we have before us today will make it harder for the federal government to do what we have told them to do for decades, which is to put dangerous people and people who are seriously mentally ill on the list of those that are prohibited from buying guns. That's the existing law. The existing law says that if you are convicted of a serious crime or you have a serious mental illness and you have gone through a process by which a determination has been made by a government agency as such, that you should not be able to buy a weapon.
Why do we have that law on the books? Why have we come together as Republicans and Democrats to say that people with serious mental illness or people who have been adjudicated of violent crimes shouldn't be able to have weapons? The evidence tells us over and over again that if you have committed a violent crime, you will commit another one. As we have seen these mass shooters walk into places like Sandy Hook Elementary School or a movie theater in Colorado or a classroom in Blacksburg, we know that people with serious mental illness in this country can go buy a very powerful weapon and do great damage with it.
Now, that does not mean that there is an inherent connection between mental illness and violence. In fact, we know the opposite to be true. If you're mentally ill, you're probably more likely to be the victim of violence than you are to be the perpetrator of it. But we do know that in this country, given the fact that weapons are so easy to come by, people with mental illness, serious mental illness, who have an intersection with visions of violence often do great harm. So we made a decision, a collective decision as Republicans and Democrats, that if you have a serious mental illness, you probably shouldn't be able to go and buy an assault weapon. That's what the law says. Section 101 of the NICS Improvement [Amendments] Act is entitled "enhancement of requirement that federal departments and agencies provide relevant information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System." That is a piece of legislation that both Republicans and Democrats supported, and it commands that federal agencies provide relevant information to the criminal background check system.
What's relevant information? Well, ATF defines those that should not be able to buy a gun as one who lacks the mental capacity to manage his own affairs. So there's the existing statute. The existing statute says relative agencies should forward information to the criminal background check system on individuals who are prohibited from owning guns and that is defined in part as individuals who lack the mental capacity to manage his or her own affairs.
And that is exactly what the regulation that was proffered by the Obama administration at the end of last year does. It says that individuals who have filed a claim for disability – who meet the requirements of one of Social Security's mental disorders listing of impairments – have been found to be so severely impaired that they are unable to work, and they have been found with due process of being incapable to manage their own benefits and have had a representative appointed to them to manage their disability benefits. Those individuals meet the definition of someone who lacks the mental capacity to manage their own affairs.
And so if you are supporting the CRA today, then you are undermining the ability of law enforcement to do their job, to enforce the law as Congress has passed. And so, spare me this rhetoric about passing no new laws, we should just focus on enforcement. Once again with this CRA, you are undermining the ability of the federal government and of law enforcement to enforce the law. And let's be clear about what the danger is here. It is correct to state that there is no inherent connection between being mentally ill and being dangerous, but the risk here is not just that an individual is going to buy a gun and use it themselves. The risk is that someone who can't literally deposit their own paycheck probably can't, or likely can't responsibly own and protect a gun.
I could sit here for the rest of the day and recite to you the number of times that a gun that was owned by one individual got used in an accidental shooting, got taken illegally, stolen from their premises and used in a crime. The danger of an individual who has severe mental incapacity is not just that they are going to take that weapon and fire it, but that they're not going to own, keep, and protect it responsibly.
If you can't manage your own financial affairs, how can we expect you are going to be a responsible steward of a dangerous, lethal firearm? And we're talking about a very limited group of individuals here who, by the way, under the regulation, have due process to contest the determination. First of all, they have an ability to contest the decision by Social Security that they shouldn't be able to manage their own financial affairs, and then the regulation secondarily gives them the ability to specifically contest their limitation on gun ownership. So there is full ability for the individual or for the family to contest this limitation, which makes it completely constitutional. This is nonsense that this is a restriction of a constitutional right.
The Heller decision, which does hold that an individual has the right to gun ownership, also makes it explicit in Justice Scalia's opinion that there are limitations on that right, and that the Scalia decision itself lists as one of those conditions the restriction of gun ownership by people who are seriously mentally ill. So the law is clear that federal agencies are required to upload information on to NICS of those individuals who cannot manage their own financial affairs because of mental illness. The Supreme Court is clear that this is entirely constitutional.
So why are we doing this? Why are we having a debate about rolling back the Criminal Background Check System when 90% of Americans support it? I'm just going to tell you no matter what state you live in, you go sit down with your constituents and you tell them that you voted to allow people who are seriously mentally ill to be able to buy guns, you're not going to get a lot of takers. It's not because people don't have compassion for people with mental illness. I worked for the last two years to pass the most substantial Mental Health Reform Act that this body has seen in a decade. I've spent as much, or more time than anybody in this chamber advocating for the rights of people with mental illness and for their treatment, but I also understand that when people are so mentally ill that they can't manage their own financial affairs, they probably shouldn't buy a gun. That's a small class of people.
And, Mr. President, what makes me so angry about this is that I have no idea how to go back to the people that I represent in Connecticut and tell them that in four years since the massacre in a small town elementary school, that not only has Congress passed no law, made no change in statute to try to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of would-be shooters, but that today we are doing exactly the opposite. That the response to the epidemic of mass shootings in this country is to make it easier for people with serious mental illness to get guns. How do I explain that to people in Connecticut?
How do the folks representing areas where shootings are a regular occurrence explain that Congress has done nothing to address mass shootings, to address the epidemic rates of gun violence in our cities, and yet we think it's so important to undermine the Criminal Background Check System. Not strengthen it, undermine it. In the first month of this new administration, this new Congress, we're rushing through this repeal of a commonsense regulation. That is deeply offensive to the majority of Americans who think that we should be strengthening the Criminal Background Check System, not undermining it. Ninety-percent of Americans think we should have universal background checks. Not only are we not listening to them, we are undermining the Criminal Background Check System today.
I get that the gun lobby is pretty powerful in this place. I get that they have stood in the way of changes in our Criminal Background Check System that are supported by ninety-percent of Americans. But even I wasn't cynical enough to think that they had so much power that they could get Congress to roll back, to undermine the Criminal Background Check System in the wake of this continued horrific level of gun violence all across the country.
Senator Wyden is right. The danger in this is not just that it has the immediate impact of undermining the Criminal Background Check System, but that it potentially blocks our ability to get this right in the future. We don't know what the precedent for CRAs is because we haven't done them before. What we know is it says you can't pass any regulation that is substantially similar to the regulation that you legislated on. What does that mean in the context of keeping people with serious mental illness on the Criminal Background Check System?
Does that mean that we can't ever legislate or regulate on the narrow issue of individuals who have had their right of financial affairs restricted through Social Security or is that a broader prohibition that limits the administration's ability to regulate on strengthening of the Criminal Background Check System in a much more comprehensive way?
You're playing with fire here because this is a precedent that we knew nothing about. You're playing with fire because you're potentially limiting the ability to ever get this issue right in the future when ninety-percent of Americans want us to work together on it.
So I understand that this issue is a sensitive one. Having spent my entire career working hand in hand with committed advocates for people with mental illness, I understand the danger of conflating mental illness with violence. But this is a narrow category of individuals who, by definition, fit the parameters in existing law for those that are supposed to be on the NICS system. And for all the things that we disagree about on gun policy – I don't suspect we're going to get a meeting of the minds this Congress on whether all gun sales should be subject to background checks. I don't suspect we'll figure out a way of working together to restrict high capacity magazines or assault weapons. I thought we at least agreed on keeping the background checks system that we have. And the existing law – the existing law – says that individuals who lack the mental capacity to manage their own affairs should be included on the list of those that are prohibited from buying weapons.
And today we are undermining that existing law. We are undermining the enforcement of current statute, something that Republicans have said over and over and over again they are not interested in doing. I would strongly urge my colleagues to vote against this measure.
I thank the floor for the time. I yield back.