Mental Health Legislation, Not Gun Control, Focus of Congress After Navy Yard Shooting

Republicans and Democrats seek mental health care legislation to curb gun violence.

“(P)eople who are not rehabilitated should not, because of their past record, be able to purchase a gun through a commercial sale," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Tuesday.

“(P)eople who are not rehabilitated should not, because of their past record, be able to purchase a gun through a commercial sale," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Tuesday.

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Aaron Alexis had a record of gun violence and a history of mental illness.

In 2004, he shot out the tires of a construction worker, was arrested and let go. In 2010, he fired his gun into the apartment floor of his upstairs neighbor, was arrested and let go. He was discharged from the U.S. Navy and was seeking treatment for mental illness. Yet he still managed to clear a background check and purchase a shotgun in Virginia, before turning the weapon on workers at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., and killing 12 people Monday.

[READ: Navy Yard Shooting Won't Change Gun Politics in Congress]

The violence at the Navy Yard has led some on Capitol Hill to contemplate resurrecting the background check compromise legislation that was narrowly defeated in the Senate in April 54 to 46. But even Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who had worked relentlessly to convince politically vulnerable Democrats to take the vote, admitted that no tragedy could convince everyone in his caucus to get in line behind him.

"We don't have the votes," Reid said bluntly during a press briefing on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

Instead, lawmakers are looking at what they can get passed through the divided Congress this year – a mental health bill.

"The mental health component seems to be the place where the Congress could do the most good," says Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Earlier this year Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., surprised their colleagues when they introduced a bill that would close the so-called gun-show loophole and require gun buyers to be subjected to a background check no matter where they bought their firearm whether at a gun show, online, or a sporting goods store. But in the case of the Navy Yard Shooter, the background check wasn't the problem. Multiple news reports show Alexis was able to buy a gun over the weekend, which means he had to have passed a background check.

Many on Capitol Hill are asking how Alexis was able to pass that background check considering he reportedly was receiving mental health care. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Alexis had been hearing voices and was suffering from insomnia.

Under the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the database that includes the criminal and mental health records of Americans, a person must be "adjudicated mentally defective or involuntarily committed to a mental institution" in order to be barred from buying a gun.

[POLL: Most Americans Want Congress to Try Again on Background Checks]

And that is something, lawmakers say may need to be reevaluated.

"I will support anything I can to rehabilitate people, but also make sure that people who are not rehabilitated should not, because of their past record, be able to purchase a gun through a commercial sale," Manchin says.

Graham called reforming the standards for the NICs system "dicey," but reiterated that it would be worth Congress's time. After all, he said that the Navy Yard shooter had exhibited clear signs that he was not mentally healthy enough to own a firearm.

"I believe in responsible gun ownership, but that is not responsible gun ownership," Graham says.

Democratic Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, who have been in constant communication with the families of Newtown, Conn., the site of the mass shooting that left 20 first graders dead, said Tuesday that tackling the mental health issue would be a positive step forward.

"What is common to many of these shootings and even the individual tragedies is a mental health element, and that could be the basis for consensus going forward," Blumenthal says.

Mental health care advocacy groups say one of the best things Congress can do to help Americans with mental health issues is to keep their hands off of the Affordable Care Act, the president's legislation that a coalition of Republicans are hoping to defund in the most recent round of budget fights.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Obamacare will mean 2.6 million Americans with mental illness or substance abuse will be eligible to enroll for health care within the new insurance market places opening up on Oct. 1, and 2.7 million will be eligible for mental health care through the expansion of Medicaid.