March 13, 2024

Ranking Member Takano, Rep. Thompson Urge VA to Protect Veterans After Misguided Inclusion of the Kennedy Amendment in Government Funding

Press Contact

Libby Carlson (771-216-2280)

Washington – Today, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Mark Takano (CA-39) and Gun Violence Prevention Task Force Chair Rep. Mike Thompson (CA-04), who is also a veteran, led over 135 members of Congress calling on Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Denis McDonough to protect veterans and address some of the problems caused by the Kennedy Amendment. The Kennedy Amendment rolls back 30 years of precedent and makes it easier for veterans who are mentally incompetent to access firearms. According to the VA, veterans are 57.3% more likely to die from suicide than non-veterans. 

“There are very serious reasons why a veteran is deemed mentally incompetent and is not able to purchase a firearm. Firearms were used in 68 percent of veterans’ death by suicide. So why on earth would this Congress cede one more important safeguard against a veteran’s death? If VA can, they should use prior year funds to continue adding vulnerable veterans to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database. We would also like more information from VA about any link between veterans on the NICS list and who are involved in a gun violence incident. This will help with policymaking in the future,” said Takano.   

“For decades, veterans who are a danger to themselves or others have had their information submitted to the background checks system to help keep them and our communities safe. The Kennedy Amendment ends this practice and would place troubled veterans and our communities at risk,” said Thompson. “Also, even if these veterans do not commit suicide or kill someone, they would be a felon for possessing a firearm. VA must work to address the problems created by the Kennedy Amendment to help keep our veterans safe.” 

The Kennedy Amendment was included in the Senate passed appropriations bill and was later included in the government funding bill signed into law by President Biden on March 9, 2024. Republicans have perennially introduced legislation on this issue, including most recently as the Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act that had a legislative hearing in the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee last Summer.

The full letter to Secretary McDonough can be found here and below. 

Dear Secretary McDonough, 

As members of the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, we are deeply concerned with Section 413 known as the Kennedy Amendment, which was included in the Senate-passed appropriations bill for Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies appropriations bill, and later included in the minibus for six of the 12 government funding bills. 

The Kennedy Amendment rolls back 30 years of common-sense precedent and practice which ensures that veterans who are deemed to be “mentally incompetent” are added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The current process used by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to make a competency determination as required by law, includes an opportunity for appeals, helps ensure that veterans who are a danger to themselves or others are flagged in the background check system if they try to purchase a firearm. 

At a time when veteran suicide remains a terrible crisis, we should not be making it easier for veterans who are a danger to themselves or others to access firearms. Perversely, the Kennedy Amendment is not only a threat to the physical health of veterans, but also threatens to put troubled veterans into legal jeopardy. When the VA makes a determination that a veteran is “mentally incompetent,” the veteran automatically becomes a ‘prohibited purchaser’ under longstanding federal regulations, thereby making it a felony for the veteran to purchase a firearm. This is true whether the firearm is purchased in a private sale or through a licensed dealer, and it is true whether or not the VA has submitted information about the mental status of the veterans to NICS. 

We urge the Department to take several actions to protect veterans. First, we ask you to commit to creating an automatic process to seek a judicial order for veterans the Department has found to be mentally incompetent for the purposes of appropriately adding them to the NICS background check system.  

Second, we request that the Department complete a study on veterans who are determined to be “mentally incompetent,” and the veterans who die by suicide or are involved in incidents of gun violence. Understanding the sensitive nature of this information, this report should consist of anonymized numerical data and analysis.  

Third, we urge the Department to make full use of state extreme risk protection order laws to flag concerning behaviors from veterans. The deadly mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine is a reminder of what can happen when red flags are not taken seriously. To that end, we encourage a concerted educational campaign highlighting the extreme risk protection order laws and processes available specific to the state VA facilities are located in. This information is vital for veterans and their families.

The Kennedy Amendment is dangerous for vulnerable veterans and makes our communities less safe. We urge you to use prior year funds to continue to submit data to the NICS system for as long as possible while the Department takes emergency action to institute changes that will address some of the issues raised by the Kennedy Amendment. We thank you for your consideration of this issue.