Senators on Wednesday expressed strong bipartisan support for bills that would improve the interactions of the mentally ill and the police, but clashed on how to pay for the reform and how it might affect gun ownership.
A hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee was the stage for the debate, one that's historically stalled efforts to reform the mental health system.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) last summer introduced a bill that encourages states to share more mental health records for use in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he thinks Cornyn's bill, which is approved by the National Rifle Association, would make it easier, not harder, for people with severe mental illness to acquire firearms.
“I'd like to make clear while there's broad bipartisan consensus for provisions that include how we treat mental illness, that consensus does not exist for provisions that make it easier for mentally ill individuals to get guns,” Schumer said.
Cornyn vehemently denied that. He has said his bill improves the background check system without expanding it.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said Cornyn's bill contains good ideas but many of those are in legislation he has already introduced.
Franken said his bill would reauthorize the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2004 and improve access to mental health treatment for people who come in contact with police and the justice system.
The Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act of 2015 would help create crisis intervention teams, drug and veterans courts, law enforcement training and programs that divert mentally ill people away from incarceration and toward treatment. The bill passed the Senate in December and was recently approved by the House Judiciary Committee. Cornyn is a co-sponsor of Franken's bill, which now heads to the full House.
Schumer said he would like to see the legislation passed but stressed the bill needed money to address a problem that's caught national attention in recent years.
“That's something I hope the majority will not continue to do on these key issues,” he said. “We've got to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”
The majority of the hearing featured Democrats and Republicans agreeing that mental health reform is desperately needed. The witnesses, which included mental health advocates and law enforcement officials, said they have seen and helped implement programs that can prevent the mentally ill from entering the criminal system in the first place as well as provide treatment and alternatives to incarceration. Most said the largest obstacle was financing and resources in general.
The mental health reform bills discussed during Wednesday's hearing aren't the only ones on the table. A bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), which does not include language on guns, is expected to move through the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee soon.
Cornyn has said he has talked with HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) about eventually combining the bills. But Democrats have pushed back on that suggestion, because of the provisions on gun control.