Skip to main content

Competing mental health bills set up partisan showdown

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
  • NEW: Lawmakers have two bills tackling mental health in aftermath of Santa Barbara shooting
  • Such efforts have failed before and political experts doubt there's much political will
  • Since Congress has failed to act, states have enacted a number of gun reform laws
  • Families of victims, advocates frustrated by lack of federal action

Washington (CNN) -- It is a tale of tragedy meets election-year politics.

As the nation reels from yet another mass murder, in which the killer shot some of his victims before taking his own life, two rival proposals aimed at improving mental health -- and supporters hope curbing mass gun violence by extension -- are before congressional lawmakers.

A measure sponsored by Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican and clinical psychologist, seeks to get states to revise standards for committing the severely mentally ill to hospitals.

His bill, which has bipartisan support, also includes a controversial proposal that seeks to empower families and judges to intervene on behalf of severely mentally ill adults and, in some cases, compel court-ordered therapy and medication.

Murphy's effort would also significantly dial back federal funding to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which spends more than $3 billion annually on care and is an agency that Murphy does not think is effective.

His bill has the backing of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the American Psychiatric Association and the National Sheriffs' Association, among other groups.

On Thursday, he will also outline before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee the results of his yearlong look into federal mental health programs -- an investigation sparked by the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Can Mental Health Bill Help Stop Mass Killings?

Treading carefully on guns

"The privacy laws were to prevent mistreatment from health care ... not meant to keep people from being treated in health care," Murphy said on CNN's New Day on Wednesday

He added that in many of the recent mass shootings, the parents were aware of the gunman's mental health issues but were legally powerless.

A new chance to revisit gun laws
George Chen, 19, was at home near the University of California, Santa Barbara, on Friday, May 23, when his roommate Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a deadly rampage. Rodger stabbed Chen and two other people to death at his apartment before shooting and killing three more in a nearby neighborhood, authorities said. More than a dozen others were injured before Rodger died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. George Chen, 19, was at home near the University of California, Santa Barbara, on Friday, May 23, when his roommate Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a deadly rampage. Rodger stabbed Chen and two other people to death at his apartment before shooting and killing three more in a nearby neighborhood, authorities said. More than a dozen others were injured before Rodger died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Isla Vista victims
Photos: Isla Vista victims Photos: Isla Vista victims
Could UCSB shooting have been prevented?
Red flags from California shooter's past

"People knew when something was going on. What about the rights of society? When someone says 'we don't want you forcing them into treatment,' look, I get that," Murphy said. "But society is saying when the signs are there, that someone is gravely disabled or gravely ill from mental illness, a brain illness, treat them. Denial is not a treatment."

A competing measure from Rep. Ron Barber, a politically vulnerable Arizona Democrat struck by gunfire when his former boss, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot and severely wounded in 2011, also takes a mental health approach.

His legislation would more broadly improve mental health care through added federal financial assistance for counseling, research and education efforts.

Stage set for partisan fight

His measure has the seal of approval from a number of organizations, including the National Association of School Psychologists, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Mental Health America.

"We know that one of every four Americans will have a mental illness at least once in their lifetime. Investing in mental health services in our communities and early identification and prevention of mental illness will save both lives and money," Barber said in a statement on his Web page.

The pending showdown over the two measures -- neither of which directly addresses the type of mass gun violence that ended lives in Santa Barbara, Newtown and so many other cities -- sets the stage for a partisan fight over overhauling the nation's mental health system.

"It's not what's in their hands, it's what is in their mind and heart that we've got to deal with," Murphy said on "New Day." "California has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation bar none. And so it didn't work there."

Tackling mental health and gun policy is a thorny issue, but one that needs to be addressed, Rep. Peter King, R-New York, told The Washington Post this week.

"We've got to look at how we define mental illness, who is denied weapons and who is not, and focus the discussion," King, who has pushed for tougher firearms measures, told the paper. "We have to have this debate."

Initiatives focusing on mental health were among the nearly two dozen executive actions put in place by the White House after Newtown.

Young, angry and socially alienated

The debate will unfold as the nation digests the actions of Elliot Rodger, 22, a former Santa Barbara City College student who police say fatally stabbed three people and shot three others in that city before taking his own life, Friday.

His parents had alerted authorities to their son's mental illness and signs, they say, pointed to the danger he might one day pose.

And, as has happened after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, Newtown, Washington and other shootings in other places, the victims' families and neighbors plead for justice, for an end to gun violence, for a change in laws.

"What, what has changed? Have we learned nothing? Where the hell is the leadership," a weeping Richard Martinez, whose son, Christopher, a University of California Santa Barbara college student who was shot by Rodger, told CNN. "My kid died because nobody responded to what happened at Sandy Hook."

Father of shooting victim chastises politicians, demands new gun laws

CA Shooting: Crucial moments missed
Shooting victim's dad: 'Not one more'
Witness: Suspect slowed car to shoot
Witness: Gunman was firing off shots

In what has become part of a familiar ritual following mass shootings in America, advocates call for action and politicos, especially those in Washington, project solemnity before retreating to their respective corners of the intractable gun debate.

"Shame on us for allowing this to continue," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who championed firearms reforms that failed in Congress following Newtown.

Dems also weigh gun bill

In another effort, House Democratic leaders said Wednesday they were weighing whether to push an amendment to a spending bill aimed at strengthening background checks for gun buyers. But they acknowledged it would likely prove unsuccessful.

The White House is also pushing to fund gun violence prevention studies for the first time in roughly 20 years, an effort resisted by Republican critics who accuse the Obama administration of playing politics with taxpayer funds.

Political experts say there's little visibility on the issue, even if the conversation centers on mental health, which has routinely presented itself in the roster of America's mass shootings.

As details emerged over the weekend in California, Rodger's history of mental health issues apparently was no secret to his family. A family friend said he had seen therapists since childhood.

The public push for reforms is fickle and is largely influenced by moment-to-moment tragedy, said Cedric Alexander, the chief of police for DeKalb County, Georgia, a clinical psychologist and adviser to the pro-gun rights group Independent Firearm Owners Association.

"Our attention span is so short we never focus on this complicated problem long enough to address the problem, let alone begin to fix it," Alexander said in a statement.

Support for gun control has hit peaks and valleys since 1993. That's when the Brady Bill came about after the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan and established a federal background check program for gun purchases.

According to a CNN/ORC International survey conducted in December, 49% of Americans said they supported stricter gun control laws, while 50% opposed them. That fell from the 55% who backed tougher measures a few weeks after the Newtown shootings.

States take the lead

Stymied federal legislative actions have sent advocates for stricter controls looking for new ways to have an impact.

The gun control fights have now moved to the states where legislatures have weighed more than 1,000 proposals, according to an analysis by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

The battle over gun policy: Old fight, new strategies

And according to data collected for CNN by the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than half of the nation's legislatures -- those dominated by Republicans -- weighed bills that would have nullified any federal ban on military style assault weapons and limits on large magazines.

Will states go where Congress hasn't on gun laws?

A number of measures at the state level deal with mental health.

In South Dakota, the GOP-controlled legislature passed a bill requiring that mental health records of "someone acquitted of a crime by reason of insanity" be sent to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

According to data from the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System, roughly 1% of gun permit applicants who failed to pass a background check over the past 14 years, or 10,180 people, were denied for reasons related to mental health.

Part of complete coverage on
Isla Vista rampage
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 1418 GMT (2218 HKT)
The restraining order would temporarily bar a mentally unstable person from buying and possessing firearms after family, partners or friends call police.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 0233 GMT (1033 HKT)
Elliott Rodger left behind a 107,000-word "story" of what the shooting suspect called his "twisted world."
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 0233 GMT (1033 HKT)
As a California university mourns the deaths of six students, grieving parents are bracing to do the unimaginable -- bury their children.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 2334 GMT (0734 HKT)
Sorority sisters. Roommates and a visiting friend. A college student shopping at a deli. Six people were killed in the Isla Vista mass shooting.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 2343 GMT (0743 HKT)
At 17, the killer began fantasizing about punishing "all of the popular kids and young couples for the crime of having a better life than me."
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 0227 GMT (1027 HKT)
Elliot Rodger's journal is filled with lengthy diatribes against women.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 2010 GMT (0410 HKT)
No, not all men channel frustration over romantic rejection into a killing spree. But yes, all women experience harassment, discrimination or worse.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 0444 GMT (1244 HKT)
Three men at an apartment, two women outside a sorority and one visitor to a deli were killed in a rampage.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 0232 GMT (1032 HKT)
As Elliot Rodger was carrying out a deadly rampage, his parents were frantically trying to find him, having just received a chilling manifesto from their son.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 0004 GMT (0804 HKT)
Chris Martinez, just 20 years old when he was gunned down at a deli Friday in California, dreamed of being a lawyer like his dad.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Advocates and families of victims are frustrated by the lack of federal action on gun control.
May 24, 2014 -- Updated 2100 GMT (0500 HKT)
CNN's Sara Sidner spoke with student Kyle Sullivan about the horrific aftermath of the "mass murder" in California.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 0233 GMT (1033 HKT)
A mentally disturbed gunman possibly bent on retribution sprayed bullets from a slow-moving car in a California college town, killing six people.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 0017 GMT (0817 HKT)
Chaotic. Rapidly unfolding. Convoluted. Here's a rundown of what authorities believe happened.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 0239 GMT (1039 HKT)
The recent shooting in Isla Vista was the second time that a mass killing has occurred in the unincorporated community in 13 years.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 0253 GMT (1053 HKT)
Investigators want to know who the man was behind the gun and why he killed six people.
May 25, 2014 -- Updated 1337 GMT (2137 HKT)
Another week in America, another mass shooting.
May 26, 2014 -- Updated 1354 GMT (2154 HKT)
Police say the violence lasted just minutes but the shooter left six dead.