Thank you for contacting me regarding firearms and the Second Amendment. There are few issues more controversial in our society or more central to any discussion on freedom’s foundation.
Let me say from the outset that my response to you is not unique. As you may know from previous correspondence, I take very seriously my responsibility to thoughtfully respond to each letter or email individually. In this situation however, due the high volume of mail and my desire not to keep you waiting, I want to more generally share with you the principles that guide me in reviewing any legislation related our Second Amendment rights. With that in mind, please do not hesitate to write again with further comments. You can be certain I will personally receive your comments and respond to any additional concerns.
As you know, the discussions now ongoing in Washington regarding guns are driven largely by the senseless murders that occurred in Newtown and Aurora this past year. Unfortunately, the kind of unspeakable violence we saw on those darks days has become all-too-common in our society today. While I think most of the solutions being offered look more at symptoms than the real disease, I do think it is entirely appropriate for our nation to take a hard look at itself and seriously examine the causal factors behind violent outbursts.
First and foremost, this discussion on reducing violence must begin with one unshakable principle—our Constitution is the single greatest protector of life and liberty, and must not be infringed upon. The same Bill of Rights that upholds the value of each and every human life also recognizes our inherent right to protect ourselves. I reject any notion that one right must be sacrificed to strengthen the other. In fact, I believe it is just the opposite. This has been my guide throughout my time in the senate, and I think my record demonstrates that no other Senator has stood more firmly or alone in advancing these principles. If you are interested in learning more, you can view my legislative record online at http://1.usa.gov/UGN28K and http://1.usa.gov/XoG6eT.
With this as my guide, I do believe there is a legitimate need to examine our current system for keeping guns out of the hands of those who are already prohibited by law from possessing such weapons—felons and those adjudicated as a “mental defective.” While no legislation can stop every act of violence, including the tragedies of the past year, we should work within our constitutional authority to make these systems actually work. And the truth is, there is a gap in current policy that allows these already-prohibited individuals to skirt the law and purchase weapons. A large number of guns are sold outside of the current background check system and I believe we must re-examine our approach.
In reality, the current National Instant Check System (NICS), which is used by firearm sellers to determine whether a prospective buyer is eligible to purchase firearms, is incomplete and failing to achieve its desired results. This is particularly true for those persons who have been adjudicated as a “mental defective,” and are supposed to be included in the NICS Index. As a physician, I believe our nation must do more to ensure those with mental illnesses who are a threat to themselves and others have access to treatment and are prevented from accessing firearms. To this end, officials at every level of government must examine our compliance with current laws and policies aimed at achieving this. In 2007, Congress passed the NICS Improvement Amendments Act (P.L. 110-180) which established incentives for state, local, and tribal governments to increase the compliance of states reporting seriously mentally ill persons to the NICS system. However, a July 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that these incentives have not been implemented, and the law has not achieved the intended purpose of improving the reporting rates of mental health records by states. As of October 2011, only 12 states had made substantial improvement in reporting, while almost half of the states, including Oklahoma, had barely made any progress in this area. While states have primacy in passing laws and establishing policies on how to submit records to the NICS index, Congress should review, and amend if necessary, the recently passed NICS Improvement Act to ensure that it achieves it intended purpose of properly identifying and preventing access to firearms for those who are prohibited from it.
In the weeks ahead, I am willing to listen to and discuss this issue with anyone who wants to seriously deliberate it. We have much to gain from the discussion, including examining the obvious impact of violent media, the breakdown of the family unit, the lack of available mental health options, and the failure of the current administration to prosecute gun crimes. It may surprise you to learn that prosecutions of federal guns crimes have dropped dramatically in recent years, and I believe Congress has a duty to hold the President and his Justice Department accountable for this lapse.
As I enter these discussions, I do so with a firm commitment to our Constitution and the individual right to keep and bear arms. There are no easy answers, but I do not believe we have anything to fear from an open, honest debate.
Thank you again for your message. If you have additional concerns, I do hope to hear from you soon.
Tom A. Coburn, M.D.
United States Senator
Thoughts to be added later