House sends gun safety legislation to Biden with Stabenow's mental health program

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The biggest change in gun safety law in a generation was headed for President Joe Biden's signature Friday, and it included expanded eligibility for a mental health program written by Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

The Democratic-led House voted 234-193 to approve the legislation Friday. Michigan U.S. Reps. Fred Upton of St. Joseph and Peter Meijer of Grand Rapids Township were among the 14 House Republicans who voted yes.

It followed Senate passage late Thursday with 15  Republican senators voting with Democrats in support of the package, which has been hailed as the most significant gun legislation in 30 years. 

Stabenow's measure, co-written by Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, reimburses states through Medicaid for mental health and addiction services provided at federally qualified community health clinics that must offer 24-hour crisis services, among other elements.

Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Roy Blunt want to expand their pilot program funding mental health services in community health clinics.

"We know that more than half of all gun deaths are suicides and those with mental illness are more likely to be a victim of violence than perpetuate it," Stabenow said in a statement after the Senate vote.

"This bill builds on my transformational behavioral health care initiative to bring high-quality mental health and addiction services to communities across the country to get people the care they need as part of the health care system."

The program started in 2016 with eight funded states, and two more were added in 2020, including Michigan. Those states will get four more years of participation in the program under the legislation passed Friday, according to Stabenow's office. The bill also provides $40 million in planning grants for states new to the program. 

More than 435 clinics are part of the program around the country now, including individual clinics that can apply to join, Stabenow said this week. Anyone can go to one of the Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics for care, whether they have insurance or not. 

"Everybody always says, well, a big part of the (gun violence) problem here is the mental health delivery system's not working," Blunt told reporters this week.

"And so we were able to come back and say, Look, we've got examples of 10 states and 30 others where it's not only working, but they know it works. Let's go ahead and expand." 

The Stabenow-Blunt measure is part of a broader bipartisan Senate package negotiated in the wake of mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas; Buffalo, New York; and the Nov. 30 shooting at Oxford High School in Oakland County in which four students were killed.

The bill includes funding for anti-violence efforts, mental health centers in schools and support for suicide hotlines.

It also would strengthen background checks for gun purchasers younger than 21 and would make it easier to seize guns from people threatening to kill themselves or others in states that adopt such initiatives, as well as people who have committed domestic violence. 

The bill also cracks down on gun trafficking and expands who needs to register as a federal firearms dealer, including so-called "straw purchases" when someone is buying a weapon for someone else.

"I'm in the camp that says it's not enough" to address gun violence, Stabenow said Thursday on MSNBC. "But I believe this is the step we can do now. On the mental health side, it's a humongous step."

The package includes parts of legislation first introduced in 2015 by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, that aims to close the so-called "boyfriend" loophole by prohibiting convicted abusers of current or former dating partners from purchasing or owning firearms.

Currently, those convicted of domestic abuse can lose their weapons only if their victim is their current or former spouse or they have a child with the victim. Current law doesn't apply to dating partners.

The National Rifle Association has opposed Dingell's bill — an issue that delayed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act for over a year as she worked to get it included as a provision.

The newly passed legislation expands federal law so individuals in "serious" dating relationships and who have been convicted of domestic violence would be blocked from purchasing firearms, though the bill does not define what constitutes a “dating relationship." 

The text includes language saying that those convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse may potentially have their gun rights restored after five years if they keep a clean record, with exceptions for victims' spouses and some other categories.

Dingell this week stopped short of saying the Senate package closes the boyfriend loophole, while commending the Senate for including some of the provisions of her legislation in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. 

"It's significant that it was included in the package. It's recognition of it as an issue," Dingell said in an interview.

"We've reduced the loophole, but we still have work to do to make sure that everyone, including victims of domestic abuse, is safe from guns."

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell speaks at the planned parenthood rally in Ann Arbor on Saturday, May 14, 2022.

Stabenow introduced the Excellence in Mental Health Act with Blunt in 2013. The impetus was a desire to change the funding model for community-based mental health and addiction treatment so it would not be limited to grants that "start and stop" but as part of the health care system.

The program created federal criteria for participating clinics to meet high quality standards and offer services including 24-hour crisis psychiatric care, outpatient services, immediate screenings, risk assessments and integrated help to treat substance abuse. 

The model is intended to keep those needing treatment out of jails and hospitals, and off the streets, aiming to reduce the cost and burden on prisons, police and emergency rooms.

Stabenow has highlighted data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showing that those receiving services from the Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics program for six months or more had a 63% reduction in emergency room visits for behavioral health issues, a 60% decrease in time spent in jail and 41% decline in homelessness among clients.

The Congressional Budget Office has said it would cost over $8 billion to expand the program to all states.

mburke@detroitnews.com