VA halts taking away gun rights from veterans who require help managing their benefits — but only for 6 months
(Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

VA halts taking away gun rights from veterans who require help managing their benefits — but only for 6 months

A new ban that has stopped the Department of Veterans Affairs from taking away the gun rights of veterans who are found to be incapable of managing their own financial affairs will expire in six months, VA officials said.

The VA in March ended its weekly practice of submitting the names of veterans appointed fiduciaries to handle their VA disability benefits to the FBI’s national background check database.

The database contains information on people prohibited from buying or receiving firearms. Inclusion in the database legally disqualifies veterans from owning, possessing or buying firearms from licensed dealers.

The VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, which disperses monthly benefit payments to veterans, has been required by federal law upon the VA’s appointment of a fiduciary to manage a veteran’s benefits to submit the veteran’s name to the FBI’s National Instant Background Check System, or NICS, as ineligible to own or possess firearms, according to the agency.

The new temporary provision does not overturn current law but essentially blocks VA from adding the names of veterans appointed fiduciaries to “the FBI-prohibited persons database in the NICS system,” said Aidan Johnston, director of federal affairs for the Gunowners of America, a nonprofit lobbying organization with two million members.

Terrence Hayes, the VA press secretary, said the provision restricts VA from “using appropriated funds” to make reports to the NICS system without a court order or ruling.

The provision had bipartisan support, including from Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., who for several years sought to overturn the practice by the Veterans Benefits Administration to notify the NICS system of veterans appointed fiduciaries.

Tester said he knew of veterans who refused to apply for or collect VA benefits because they were worried about losing their gun rights. He said the law has punished people who receive VA benefits but need help managing their money.

The new legislation does not amend the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which authorizes the VA to report the names of “incompetent beneficiaries” to the FBI database that gun dealers check before selling firearms. Passage of the Brady Act in 1993 led to the establishment of the national background check system for firearm licensees. Since 1998, the VA has reported veterans appointed fiduciaries to the NICS database.

But the new policy, while temporary, means only those veterans declared by a court or magistrate as mentally incompetent and an imminent danger to themselves or others will be reported to the NICS system and legally lose their right to buy, possess or own a firearm.

Navy veteran Abraham Conrique, an 82-year-old, part-time cab driver in Maryland, said he understands there are situations when a veteran should not have access to a gun, given his own personal history of service-related mental health problems.

“I never had a court hearing over my mental health. But I’m smart enough to know that I shouldn’t have firearms with my level of PTSD. Some veterans need those restrictions,” said Conrique, who referred to his own diagnoses in 2020 for post-traumatic stress disorder.

But only a judge should have the power to make that decision, said Conrique, a petty officer second class during the Vietnam War, with deployments in Vietnam and Japan.

The policy was adopted as an amendment to the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2024, signed into law last month. But it has an expiration date of Sept. 30, which is the end of fiscal 2024, said Kathleen McCarthy, communications director for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“I will note that we are working on a permanent solution to this issue,” she said. “Anything that’s included in an appropriations bill is only authorized for that fiscal year, so next year the policy would need to be included in the appropriations bill for the following fiscal year and so on.”

The temporary provision is also limited in scope. It does not restore gun rights to veterans appointed fiduciaries prior to March 2024. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and American Legion have expressed support for legislation to end permanently the VA practice of submitting the names of veterans to the FBI’s database.

Patrick Murray, the VFW’s national legislative director, said at a hearing last month of the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs committees that a VA administrator “should not be the person who removes the constitutional right to gun ownership. That is for a judge or magistrate to decide.”