Backed by the National Rifle Association, the Senate's No. 2 Republican leader introduced legislation Wednesday that would reward states for sending more information about residents with serious mental problems to the federal background check system for firearms purchasers.
The bill by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, would also bolster programs for treating mentally ill people and handling confrontations with them.
The killings in a Louisiana movie theater last month by a gunman with mental problems put a fresh spotlight on holes in the background check system.
Cornyn's legislation is far more modest than a Senate measure expanding background check requirements that Republicans and the NRA helped defeat two years ago. It's also narrower than a bill a top Senate Democrat announced this week.
Still, it represents a rare effort by a leading Republican to propose steps that could curb some firearms purchases. Cornyn has an A-plus rating for his gun-rights voting record from the NRA, which long has fought gun restrictions yet has backed some bills limiting the ability of mentally troubled people to buy firearms.
"Gaps in existing law or inadequate resources prevent our communities from taking proactive steps to prevent them from becoming violent," said Cornyn, R-Texas, in a written statement.
Jennifer Baker, spokeswoman for NRA legislative affairs, said the bill took "meaningful steps toward fixing the system and making our communities safer."
Arkadi Gerney, a gun policy expert for the liberal Center for American Progress, said prodding states to submit additional data to the background check system is "a good and smart notion," but it would be better to push broader legislation "that covers all the gaps."
By law, federally licensed gun dealers must conduct background checks on firearms purchasers.
Among those barred from buying guns are people legally determined to be "mentally defective" and those who have been committed to mental institutions. But states are not required to send those records to the background check system, which is run by the FBI, and its database is spotty.
Cornyn's bill would increase grants under the government's main law enforcement program by up to 5 percent for states that send the federal system at least 90 percent of their records on people with serious mental problems. States providing less data could see their grants from a broad range of justice programs penalized by the same amounts, at the attorney general's discretion.
The provisions were described by aides to Cornyn who spoke on condition of anonymity because the legislation had not been broadly distributed.
The bill would give state and local governments more flexibility to use federal funds to screen for mental problems in prisoners and improve training for law enforcement officers and others on handling emergencies involving the mentally ill.
Less than two weeks ago, John Russell Houser fired a handgun into a crowd of movie watchers in Lafayette, Louisiana, killing two and wounding nine. Houser's family said they knew he had mental problems and had sought court protection, but he was not involuntarily committed to a hospital.
When he purchased the weapon at a gun shop in Alabama, the information about his problems had not been sent to the background check system and the sale was allowed. Police said Houser killed himself after they confronted him.
Dylann Roof, charged in June's massacre of nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, bought his gun after an FBI background check examiner did not discover that Roof had been arrested for possessing illegal drugs, authorities said. That should have blocked his purchase.
On Monday, a Democratic leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced legislation that would provide extra federal money to states that send a broad range of data on the mentally ill to the federal system, including information about the mentally ill, violent criminals and domestic abusers.
In 2013, the Senate shelved bipartisan legislation that would have expanded required background checks to firearms bought at gun shows and all Internet sales. All but four of the chamber's 45 Republicans opposed the measure.