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In Gun Debate, No Rift on Better Care for Mentally Ill

Senator John Cornyn. (Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Washington – While the Senate has been consumed with a divisive debate over expanded background checks for gun buyers, lawmakers have been quietly working across party lines on legislation that advocates say could help prevent killers like Adam Lanza, the gunman in the Newtown, Conn., massacre, from slipping through the cracks.

Proponents say the plans, which stand a good chance of being included in any final gun-control bill, would lead to some of the most significant advancements in years in treating mental illness and address a problem that people on both sides of the issue agree is a root cause of gun rampages. Unlike the bitter disagreements that have characterized efforts to limit access to guns, the idea of improving mental health unites Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural, blue state and red state.

“This is a place where people can come together,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, who has worked with some of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans on a piece of mental health legislation. “As we’ve listened to people on all sides of the gun debate, they’ve all talked about the fact that we need to address mental health treatment. And that’s what this does.”

The issue also appeals to members of Congress in another important way: it serves as a political refuge for Republicans and more conservative Democrats who are eager to offer a federal response to the shootings in Connecticut and Aurora, Colo., but have no interest in taking any action that could be seen as infringing on constitutional gun rights.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, who has not wavered in his opposition to tighter gun laws, met with families of Newtown victims and said he came away believing they wanted to attack mental health problems above all else.

“This is actually something we can and should do something about,” Mr. Cornyn said. “We need to make sure that the mentally ill are getting the help they need.”

Advocates for better mental health services said that many of them were initially uneasy about seizing on an event as tragic as the Connecticut school shootings to win improvements in care. And many have noted that very few violent crimes are committed by mentally ill people. But they came to believe that the current time was the best opportunity for real change, and that they might not get another one for a while.

“This is our moment,” said Linda Rosenberg, the president of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. “I hate the connection between gun violence and the need for better mental health care, but sometimes you have to take what you can get.”

The emerging legislation would, among other things, finance the construction of more community mental health centers, provide grants to train teachers to spot early signs of mental illness and make more Medicaid dollars available for mental health care.

There would be suicide prevention initiatives and support for children who have faced trauma. The sponsors of one of the bills estimated that an additional 1.5 million people with mental illness would be treated each year.

Ms. Stabenow’s measure has attracted backing from some of the Senate Republicans who are strongly backed by the National Rifle Association, including Marco Rubio of Florida and Roy Blunt of Missouri. Both of those lawmakers opposed the successful effort on Thursday to overcome a Republican filibuster and begin debate on a gun measure.

One of the proposals being negotiated, which has the support of Senators Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, and Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, unanimously passed a Senate committee this week, something that could hardly be said about any of the gun legislation.

President Obama has also joined the effort. His budget includes $130 million for programs that would help detect mental illness in young children, train educators to spot those signs and refer the students to treatment.

Treatment for mentally ill people is but one of many issues before Congress, and it lacks not only headline-grabbing elements like semiautomatic weapons and gun-show loopholes, but also a backer like Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York who can bankroll a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to remind voters to contact their senators.

Nevertheless, the issue has moved rapidly through the Senate, because of the efforts of the mental health lobby and because many legislators have a personal connection to mental illness. Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, spoke the other day about his father’s suicide by gun.

Senate Democratic aides said that there is likely to be at least one mental health bill offered as an amendment to the larger gun package. The problem will be accommodating all of the additions.

Democrats have to agree to allow Republicans the same number of amendments as they give themselves. To reduce the likelihood that Republicans will offer multiple amendments that could water down and even torpedo the gun bill, it is in Democrats’ interest to limit their amendments.

A major reason proponents of this legislation see it as so significant is that unlike background checks or weapons bans, properly treating mental illness can prevent problems before a potential killer tries to buy a gun.

“Interestingly enough, if you look at Aurora, Tucson, Newtown, the people we’re talking about are very likely not individuals whose names would be on any lists,” said Ronald S. Honberg, the legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He noted that none of the recent spree killers he mentioned had been declared “mentally defective” by a judge, the legal standard for a name landing in the background check system.

Though more stringent reporting standards into the nation’s background check system will undoubtedly help, he added, there will always be holes.

“It’s very difficult to come up with a system that’s foolproof,” he said. “The bigger point is if you really want to improve mental health care in this country, then let’s improve mental health care.”

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