Chris Carlson/AP
Richard Martinez talks about his slain son, Christopher Michael-Martinez, and the need for Congress to act on gun control at a memorial service at Harder Stadium on the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara, on Tuesday. Before taking his own life, alleged gunman Elliot Rodger shot three people, stabbed three people, and injured 13 in Isla Vista, Calif., on May 23.

Why Congress targets mental health, not gun control, after mass killings

The UC Santa Barbara killings revived calls for more aggressive federal action on gun control. But in Congress, the emphasis is on mental-health fixes to stem violent attacks. Here's what the House is considering and why.

As mass killings such as the one in California over the Memorial Day weekend mount up, the way to action in Congress is more likely to be through mental-health legislation than gun control.

The reason is simple, says Julian Zelizer, congressional historian at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. “Mental health legislation is not blocked by a gun rights lobby.”

In the aftermath of the Isla Vista, Calif., shootings and stabbings by the deeply troubled Elliot Rodger, two draft mental-health bills are getting a fresh look in the House. On Friday, Rep. Mike Thompson (D) of California introduced a bill that marries mental health with preventing gun violence. In the Senate, meanwhile, one idea is to pull out the mental-health aspect from an expanded gun-background check bill that failed last year, and offer it as separate legislation.

For now, the action is in the House, with three bills that come at mental health and violence from different angles. These include:

Treating the severely mentally ill. Rep. Tim Murphy (R) of Pennsylvania, a clinical psychologist, has introduced a bill with a focus on people with serious mental illness. The bipartisan legislation, which has 86 cosponsors including 36 Democrats, would encourage states to revise standards to commit the severely mentally ill to hospitals – standards that would recognize need of treatment, not just imminent danger. The bill would also enable families and judges to intervene and to mandate therapy and medication, including outpatient treatment.

A broader approach. Rep. Ron Barber, a Democrat from Arizona who was injured in the 2011 Tucson shooting that killed six people and injured former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), takes a more sweeping approach. His bill would use federal dollars to improve general access to mental-health services by beefing up counseling, research, and education. “Investing in mental health services in our communities and early identification and prevention of mental illness will save both lives and money," Mr. Barber says in a statement. The bill, so far, has only Democratic sponsors.

A mental health-gun violence combo. Representative Thompson, a self-declared “gun guy” whose bipartisan bill to expand gun background checks has languished, is taking a new tack: marrying more resources for mental-health crisis prevention with federal gun policy. The bill has Democratic cosponsors now – including Rep. Lois Capps, whose district includes Isla Vista – but Thompson is seeking Republicans to climb on board.

The Thompson bill seeks to close loopholes in gun laws that apply to mental illness. For instance, it would prohibit involuntarily committed mentally ill outpatients from purchasing guns if a court deems those individuals to be an imminent threat; current law applies only to in-patients. It would provide grants to states to create laws that would, for instance, allow law enforcement officials to seek warrants to temporarily remove firearms from individuals at risk of violence. It would expand gun-purchasing bans to people convicted of misdemeanor stalking, and it would broaden the scope of domestic violence to protect more categories of people.

These bills are not without controversy, especially Murphy’s provisions for involuntary commitment and family involvement in the mental-health treatment of other adult family members. Critics view these as a serious infringement on an individual’s civil rights, including privacy.

But those seeking to curtail gun violence took heart Thursday when the House approved, on a bipartisan vote of 260 to 145, legislation sponsored by Thompson to add nearly $20 million to the existing federal gun-background check system – whose database is dysfunctional, many say. Notably, the legislation was to help an existing program, not create new gun policy.

Norman Ornstein, a political observer and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says emotional cries are again rising to challenge the powerful gun lobby, including the 5-million-member National Rifle Association. That notwithstanding, he says, “there are plenty of members of Congress who would rather do something in mental health than on guns.” Groups that may oppose mental-health legislation have "less traction" than the gun lobby, he adds.

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