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Sen. Cornyn rolls out gun plan focused on mental health

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is flanked by U.S. Army Gen. John Murray and Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp during a Wednesday new conference to announce a $65 million agreement between the Army Futures Command and Texas A&M to develop military technology. [KARA CARLSON/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Sen. John Cornyn announced legislation Wednesday that he says would curb mass shootings, after an especially bloody summer in Texas and across the country.

The plan includes none of the steps demanded by gun control activists, such as universal background checks, letting courts confiscate guns from people deemed violent, or more controversial measures aimed at curbing access to assault-style weapons or high capacity ammunition magazines.

Instead, it focuses on finding ways to help police and educators identify adults and students who might turn violent, and expanding access to mental health treatment.

“People have come up with a lot of ideas” but without enough political support and no chance of winning the president’s signature “they don’t count for much,” Cornyn said, addressing criticism that he’s not going far enough.

Gun control advocates have accused Cornyn and other Second Amendment defenders of emphasizing mental illness as a dodge of sorts, to avoid measures that would offend the NRA.

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One of the Democrats angling to face Cornyn next year as he seeks a fourth term, MJ Hegar, accused him of rejecting “meaningful action to stop gun violence” and bowing to pressure from the gun lobby.

His plan, she said, “ignores the most-needed solutions to gun violence” such as expanded background checks — an approach supported by roughly 9 in 10 Texans.

After the rampage at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs in November 2017 that killed 26 people, including a pregnant woman and her unborn baby – the worst mass shooting in Texas history – Cornyn successfully pushed through a law called the Fix NICS Act.

That hit government agencies with penalties for failing to file reports to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The Air Force had failed to report the shooter’s domestic violence conviction, which would have been flagged during a background check when he bought the gun used in the spree.

Cornyn dubs his new bill the RESPONSE Act (Restoring, Enhancing, Strengthening, and Promoting Our Nation’s Safety Efforts). He said it would prevent future attacks by giving law enforcement new tools such as:

Clarifying legal protection for internet service providers that share information with police about mass violence, hate crimes and domestic terrorism.

Speeding executions under state law by limiting appeals in federal court for people convicted of mass murder.

Creating and funding state and local task forces to bolster prosecution of illegal gun sales by unlicensed dealers, or by sellers who falsify background checks.

Asked on a call with Texas reporters why he isn’t proposing universal background checks, Cornyn noted that the Odessa-Midland shooter had purchased his gun from an unlicensed dealer, after a licensed dealer ran a background check and refused to sell to him. So, even though advocates on the other side want a more expansive approach, the senator said, this would still be a significant improvement.

“Everybody who’s in the business of buying and selling firearms should have to go through the legal requirement of getting a license and then by definition they’re obligated to do background checks. So I think this would go a long way to making sure that the background check requirement is more comprehensive than it is under current law,” Cornyn said.

Much of the plan focuses on mental health.

Cornyn’s plan would tap Medicaid to boost funding for state-run mental health programs. It would expand outpatient treatment for people with mental illness “before their condition deteriorates.” And it would provide $10 million to help state and local law enforcement work with mental health providers.

“Right now, it’s too easy for people to fall through the cracks, and that’s why we need to come at this from a number of angles,” he said.

The Cornyn plan also would boost incentives for schools to monitor the online activities of students at risk of extreme violence, add funds to expand active shooter training, and direct the federal Health and Human Services Department to study ways to identify students who could pose a threat.

“Schools remain a soft target for some of these cowards” in Parkland, Fla., and at Texas’ Santa Fe High School, Cornyn said, adding that this approach could also prevent teen suicide, because as data have long shown, “The single most common cause of death by firearm is suicide.”

“After taking over $210,000 from the gun lobby, refusing to denounce gun violence and white supremacy in the direct aftermath of the El Paso shooting, and taking money from the NRA directly between the El Paso and Midland-Odessa tragedies, it’s no surprise that John Cornyn would introduce a bill that doesn’t include expanding background checks or reducing the amount of weapons of war on our streets,” Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman said. “Texans deserve real solutions to solve our gun violence epidemic — not half measures that are meant purely to score political points.”

Cornyn announced his new plan in an op-ed published in the El Paso Times and Odessa American, news outlets in cities afflicted by mass shootings in recent months.

On Aug. 3, a gunman who had driven from Dallas targeted Latinos at an El Paso Walmart, killing 22 people, using an AK-47 assault-style gun. Later that day, a gunman with an AR-15 killed 9 people and injured many others in a half-minute spree in Dayton, Ohio.

On Aug. 31, a rampage that began with a traffic stop in Odessa left eight people dead and dozens injured. It also involved an AR-15.

Less than a week after El Paso, Cornyn said he was open to a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines and other approaches that gun-rights groups have opposed.

“Everything is on the table, except denying law-abiding citizens their constitutional rights under the Second Amendment,” he said during a stop in Denton.

Given that no such steps are part of his new bill, Hegar questioned Cornyn’s credibility on the issue.

She cited a $1,000 campaign donation from the National Rifle Association’s political action committee on Aug. 19, less than three weeks after the rampages in El Paso and Dayton. And she noted that Cornyn has received $210,190 from the NRA over his Senate career, more than all but five senators.

“How can Sen. Cornyn justify introducing a bill on mass violence that doesn’t include expanded background checks when the vast majority of Texans and gun owners believe they are needed?” Hegar said.

Cornyn touts support for the bill from the National Council for Behavioral Health, National Alliance on Mental Illness, National District Attorneys Association, Treatment Advocacy Center, Fraternal Order of Police, National Association of Police Organizations, National Sheriffs Association and Major Cities Chiefs Association.

Five GOP senators signed on as co-sponsors: Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

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© 2019 The Dallas Morning News