Mental health bills are getting a fresh look after the Isla Vista massacre, with lawmakers in both chambers and both parties pushing Congress to act.
In the aftermath of the killing spree blamed on Elliot Rodger, Democrats activated, issuing what seem like ritual news releases and tweets ripping Congress for failing to act on gun legislation, particularly in the wake of the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn.
But few expect Congress to resurrect a gun debate in the shadow of the midterm elections. Efforts to pass gun control effectively died in the Senate a year ago, when Republicans defeated a background check compromise proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa. Their amendment fell five votes short of the 60 votes it needed. Senate Democrats and the White House even pushed off a vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee to be surgeon general this year, due to opposition from the National Rifle Association.
Legislation addressing mental health has more promising potential to reach President Barack Obama's desk, although it is by no means a slam dunk. There already are multiple mental health bills in the House, and the Senate gun legislation included several mental health pieces that could be resurrected.
“Our mental health system has failed and more families have been destroyed because Washington hasn’t had the courage to fix it,” Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., said in a statement over the weekend after the shooting . “How many more people must lose their lives before we take action on addressing cases of serious mental illness?”
Murphy, a clinical psychologist, plans a Thursday briefing on his committee’s report on mental health, written over the course of a year following the tragedy in Newtown. The report calls for better training on mental health for law enforcement and emergency medical personnel. Murphy says his bill would also expand access to psychiatric treatment and it would encourage states to set a new standard for committing people — the need for treatment, not that they present an imminent danger. It would also make it easier for family members to take action.
The bill has 86 co-sponsors, 50 Republicans and 36 Democrats. And Murphy has support from Republican leadership.
“Majority Leader [Eric] Cantor is very supportive of Congressman Murphy’s efforts,” said Doug Heye, a spokesman for the Virginia Republican, who sets the floor schedule. “He continues to work with Congressman Murphy and [Energy and Commerce] Chairman [Fred] Upton on ways to advance legislation focused on improving mental health services.”
Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., also pushed for the House to take up Murphy’s bill, which had an Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health hearing in April.
“Sadly, it appears as though the tragedy in Isla Vista once again highlights the shortcomings of our mental health system,” he said in a statement. “Despite warning signs and apparent attempts by the suspect’s parents to get mental health treatment for their son, the system failed.”
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has also repeatedly pointed to the mental health issue when asked to respond to mass shootings.
A rival bill from Rep. Ron Barber of Arizona, one of the most endangered Democrats in the House, would focus on broader mental health issues rather than the severely mentally ill.
Barber was among those injured in 2011 when a gunman opened fire at then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others at a "Congress on Your Corner" event in Tucson, Ariz. “The best thing we can do is early identification and treatment — that’s what prevents people from becoming more severely involved,” he told CQ Roll Call earlier this month.
But a spokesman for Murphy ripped the Democratic bill’s approach as “a placebo” that would maintain the status quo.
Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said his boss will continue to fight for Murphy’s bill. But he was doubtful the House Republican Conference has the appetite for legislation of this kind in an election year.
"I think leaders will fight on this, but it’s very possible they don’t know where the conference is, and they want to avoid any situation where mental health is primarily hitched to the gun debate," he said.
Kasper added that the failure so far to advance Murphy’s bill was "not for lack of trying."
"Maybe they'll find room in between tragedies to start having a conversation about mental health," Kasper continued. "It’s definitely overdue. I think a lot of people recognize that. ... If you were to ask Mr. Murphy and Mr. Hunter, they’d tell you that time was yesterday."
Action could happen first in the Senate, if Democrats follow a recommendation from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. He’s proposing that Democrats present legislation focusing on the mental health component of the gun legislation that stalled last year.
"We thought after Newtown that we would, in fact, accomplish a comprehensive measure to reduce gun violence," he said Tuesday on MSNBC. "The failure to do so is shameful and disgraceful. My hope is that we can refocus on mental health, which was part of the comprehensive measure."
Broader gun control legislation faces opposition from some conservative Democrats and most Republicans.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., blamed the NRA's "stranglehold" on gun laws over the weekend following the Isla Vista shootings.
"We must ask ourselves if an individual whose family called police with concerns about mental health, who is receiving therapy and who has had several run-ins with police should be allowed to own multiple firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition," she said. "When anyone, no matter their mental health or history, can so easily obtain any gun they want and as many as they want — we must recognize there is a problem. … Americans need to rise up and say enough is enough. Until that happens, we will continue to see these devastating attacks. Shame on us for allowing this to continue."