Texas Representative Proposes Mandatory Psychological Evaluation and Training for Firearm Licensing in New Federal Gun Laws

Texas Representative Proposes Mandatory Psychological Evaluation and Training for Firearm Licensing in New Federal Gun Laws

Democrats have pushed for stricter legislation regulating the licensing and possession of firearms for years. The most recent bill, the Sabika Sheikh Firearm Licensing and Registration Act, would make psychological evaluations and training mandatory parts of federal gun laws. First introduced by Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, the bill would tighten rules about registering and reporting information for national databases.

Who is Sabika Sheikh?

Sabika Sheikh, the namesake for Rep. Lee’s bill, is one of 10 people killed during the Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018. Sheikh was an exchange student from Pakistan, and her story captivated many in the months after the shooting. She looked up to fellow Pakistani Malala Yousafzai and hoped to become a diplomat. When she began school in Santa Fe, TX, she became friends with a Christian girl, Jaelyn. Sheikh had never met a Christian, and Jaelyn had never met a Muslim. Their friendship inspired those around them and allowed both Sheikh’s host family and Jaelyn’s family to learn more about their respective cultures.

Officially the third-deadliest high school shooting in America and the deadliest school shooting in Texas history, Rep. Lee honors Sheikh and the others killed at Santa Fe High School in her legislation. The shooter, who was later deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial, openly discussed his plans and suicidal ideation. This reinforced efforts to prevent those with mental illness from accessing firearms. Rep. Lee’s bill would expand federal gun laws around mental illness to other members of the home. This is a direct response to the Santa Fe High School massacre, in which the shooter used weapons legally owned by his father.

Image accompanying article covering proposed changes for federal gun laws.
Image courtesy of Samantha Sophia via Unsplash.

Rep. Lee wants to establish a national registration system and require mental health screenings and firearms training in new federal gun law.

Though the bill is brief, it includes several provisions that would drastically change federal gun laws. One that may have the broadest impact is a provision that requires the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to establish a national registry for firearms. The bill would further require that everyone register weapons with the national database. The bill is retroactive, and current gun owners would have 90 days to register their weapons.

For future licensing, Rep. Lee proposes that all individuals meet the following requirements:

  • Age 21 or older
  • Passed criminal background check
  • Completed psychological evaluation
  • Attained at least 24 hours of training for the firearm
  • Obtained insurance that covers the weapon

The bill effectively raises the minimum age for gun ownership and eliminates the “gun show loophole” with these requirements. Currently, individuals can purchase weapons at gun shows without a background check or license. This is because requirements for a background check apply only to licensed dealers, while private individuals can sell or gift weapons without doing a background check or requiring a waiting period. Adding training and psychological evaluations to gun licensing extends the amount of time it takes to purchase a weapon.

Some legislators and gun owners oppose a federal registry. Many believe that the purpose of a registry has nothing to do with solving gun-related crimes. Instead, they argue that Democrats are pushing for a national database to make it easier to seize weapons in the future. This reflects a larger chasm between the dominant political parties, with Democrats frequently arguing for stronger federal gun laws and Republicans warning that Democrats want to strip Americans of their Second Amendment rights.

Under current legislation, only federally licensed gun dealers have to maintain records for firearms sales.

The Second Amendment may be one of the most hotly debated sections of the U.S. Constitution. This is, in large part, because the language of the amendment is remarkably vague. The entire amendment reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” Until the early 20th century, the United States government did not enforce a single regulation on firearms.

Over the past 100 years, various courts have weighed in on just what they think the amendment means. In fact, courts did not clearly acknowledge that individuals have the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment until 2008. Before then, many argued that the intent of the Constitution was to allow official state militias to operate. While the “individual rights theory” decision lifted some bans on owning handguns, it did not limit prohibitions on lawful carry.

One byproduct of this decision is that it validated individual gun owners who believe they have a right to own weapons in order to protect themselves from government tyranny. Opponents of strict gun regulation frame national registries as tyranny intentionally. The end result is a growing population of gun owners who actively acquire weapons without registering them. This is most easily done at gun shows, where private sales are quick and frequent. Following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the United States Capitol, it’s understandable that lawmakers like Rep. Lee are more motivated than ever to create a database that tracks gun ownership.

Where do psychological evaluations fit into federal gun laws?

The shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 amplified calls to regulate the sale of guns to those experiencing a mental health crisis. Unfortunately, these efforts rely too heavily on self-reporting. Many state agencies do not self-report. This is even more true with regard to individuals who have shown that they pose a threat to themselves or others. Though many states now require that mental health records are added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, about half do not. Additionally, only licensed gun dealers have to run background checks. This means that individuals with severe mental health issues can acquire a gun from a private seller with ease.

Some argue that including mental health information in a national registry violates privacy laws. The current database does not include specific information related to diagnosis or treatment. It is also not a public database. With the new legislation, no individual could possess a firearm without a psychological evaluation on file. Rep. Lee takes this further than previous gun regulation, though, by including a requirement that others in the home submit to psychological evaluations if deemed necessary by a licensed psychologist. This addition seems particularly tailored to mass shootings, wherein many shooters use weapons legally owned by immediate family members.

With HR 127, guns owners may not be able to keep weapons in the home if another person living there is banned from gun ownership under federal gun laws.

Current legislation is very specific about what types of mental illness exclude individuals from gun ownership. According to the Federal Firearms Prohibition Act, “any person who has been ‘adjudicated as a mental defective’ or ‘committed to a mental institution’ is prohibited under federal law from shipping, transporting, receiving, or possessing any firearm or ammunition.” This includes those who

  • are a danger to themselves or others;
  • cannot manage their own affairs due to mental incompetence;
  • are deemed legally insane or mentally incompetent to stand trial; or
  • have been committed to a mental institution or rehabilitation center involuntarily.

Rep. Lee’s proposal would further prohibit those hospitalized for issues related to “depression, homicidal ideation, suicidal ideation, attempted suicide, or addiction to a controlled substance … or a brain disease” from owning a gun. Since the new licensing requirements would extend to everyone living in a home, this means that children who undergo psychiatric holds or temporary stays in mental health facilities could not live in a home with firearms. This may seem extreme, but a key part of current gun reform is reducing suicide. This requires that the government take a more proactive approach to limiting access to firearms for the mentally ill.

According to HR 127, individuals also cannot sell or gift any firearm to an individual unless that person has a license. Given the requirements for a license, transferring ownership becomes far more difficult. Private sellers and even parents would have to register the transfer of ownership with the ATF. The new federal gun law would even require gun owners to notify the ATF when they allow others to borrow a firearm. The fines for failing to properly transfer ownership are steep, and many would require mandatory jail time.

Rep. Lee also plans to impose stricter regulations on military-style weapons and ammunition in new gun laws.

While almost all mass shootings involve assault weapons, there is currently not a federal ban on these firearms. HR 127 would impose a ban on many assault-style firearms by classifying them as military-style weapons. This includes the AR-15, a model used in numerous mass shootings over the past decade, as well as most semi-automatic weapons with detachable magazines. The new list would render dozens of gun models seen during the January 6 attack on the Capitol illegal. It would also outlaw the use of certain enhancements like suppressors and folding or telescoping stocks.

Image accompanying article covering proposed changes for federal gun laws.
Image courtesy of Bexar Arms via Unsplash.

Rep. Lee has included specific prohibitions against certain types of ammunition. The most notable addition to this section is a ban on any “magazine, belt, drum, feed strip, or similar device” with the capacity to hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Again, this inclusion seems particularly tailored to mass shootings, as all of the most deadly shootings have involved large capacity magazines. The time it takes to reload severely limits the number of casualties in a mass shooting.

Though previous laws have worked to reduce or ban assault weapons, one recurring problem is implementation. During the last ban on assault weapons, the law was not retroactive, giving gun owners and dealers ample time to manufacture and sell weapons ahead of the ban. Rep. Lee has included a provision that all new regulations take effect within one year. But what sets her bill apart is that it is explicitly retroactive, and gun owners would have just 90 days to register all firearms after the regulations are enacted. If passed, HR 127 could prove to be the most progressive and sweeping gun regulation in U.S. history.

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