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Cornyn: Mental Health Legislation Provides New Tools

In Austin on Monday, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn promoted federal legislation that would require mental health checks before denying anyone the ability to purchase firearms.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn during a 2014 Texas Tribune Festival interview.

When it comes to loved ones with mental health problems, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn says, families have traditionally faced two troublesome options: do nothing or institutionalize their relatives.

And as a result, families don’t have the tools to help provide the treatment needed, Cornyn said Monday in Austin, as he promoted federal legislation that would require mental health checks before denying anyone the ability to purchase firearms. The proposal would also increase funding for treatment-based responses for offenders with mental illnesses and institute court-administered programs for alternative treatment that would involve an offender's family.

"As a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, I think law-abiding citizens are not the threat, but the people who unfortunately become dangerous to themselves and others can become" one, Cornyn said while discussing the the "Mental Health and Safe Communities Act of 2015,” which he introduced in August.

He added that the legislation would help to prevent incidents like the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and the recent shooting at an Oregon college. In both cases — and in many other shootings in the past two decades in the United States — questions revolved around a gunman with mental health issues.

The legislation would adjust the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a system used to determine whether someone can buy a firearm, to incentivize states to send more mental health records for the database. It also would require a court hearing to determine whether someone really is dangerous before the person is prohibited from access to firearms.

Cornyn said he was surprised by how mental health pervades the criminal justice system, theorizing that people like Sandy Hook gunman Adam Lanza's mother had few options, causing Lanza to "continue to get sicker and sicker and sicker" or be institutionalized. Cornyn said the legislation would create intermediate help, including crisis intervention teams at the state and local levels that help with treatment services for people with mental health problems.

"One of the things we can do to help the families of mothers like Adam Lanza's mother in Newtown, like the mother who knew that her son in Oregon was becoming sicker when he didn't take his medications anymore," Cornyn said, "we can provide them tools that they need, families members need more choices to help their family members not become dangers to themselves and to others."

Groups including the National Rifle Association, the National Alliance on Mental Health, the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the Council of State Governments endorse the legislation.

Critics say Cornyn's legislation doesn't do enough to address gun violence and the fact that there are more guns in the country.

But Cornyn pushed back against the argument targeting firearms, saying that "a gun is an inanimate object."

The debates over how to address guns and mental health have only grown amid the many mass shootings across the country. Recent incidents, including the July hanging death of Sandra Bland in Waller County and the August shooting death of Harris County Deputy Darren Goforth, have only fueled those debates.

Cornyn's bill is modeled in part by practices in Texas. He was joined at Monday's news conference by several area law enforcement and mental health experts, as well as Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton and Travis County Court Judge Nancy Hohengarten.

"I have always said that we have criminalized being mentally ill," Hamilton said. He said his agency responds to incidents with a mobile crisis team, has continuity of care for inmates with mental health issues, communicates with courts about offenders' cases and will soon have counselors available 24 hours a day.

Much of what Cornyn's legislation would affect in Texas already is underway on a state level, said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, the chairman of the Texas House County Affairs Committee.

Cornyn's legislation would complement state measures taken that include the 2013 authorization of a jail diversion program in Harris County to serve as a model for the rest of the state. State lawmakers also passed legislation establishing a mental health court program 10 years before that for individuals who have committed misdemeanors and felonies.

Jail diversion before an offender enters a courtroom is still not a reality throughout the state, Coleman said.

"That's something we have to do," he said, "or our county jails will continue to be the place people go for mental health treatment."

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Courts Criminal justice Health care State government John Cornyn State agencies Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Texas Legislature