Guns, Congress and Murphy’s Law

·National Political Columnist
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Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa. speaking on Capitol Hill earlier this year. He is the author of a bill that addresses the mental health issues he believes are central to the mass shootings crisis. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Chances are you’d never heard of Tim Murphy before last week, even if you follow politics pretty closely. Or maybe you just couldn’t keep him straight among the other Murphys in Congress. (There are three at the moment, including a senator from Connecticut.)

Suddenly, though, this Murphy, a Republican congressman from the Pittsburgh area, is on virtually every network. Reporters are lighting up the switchboard at his cramped office in the Rayburn Building, while presidential candidates line up to invoke his name — all because Tim Murphy has devoted the past few years of his life to writing an arcane, 153-page bill that’s gone exactly nowhere in Congress and may well die there.

It’s a story that says a lot about what’s wrong with our politics right now. You might call it Washington’s version of Murphy’s Law: Anytime politicians can choose a simple worldview over a complex solution, they will.

The issue here is gun violence. After another twisted, horrific mass shooting last week, this time in Oregon, Democratic leaders — led by President Obama and the party’s most likely nominee, Hillary Clinton — immediately reached for their dusty policy shelves and pulled down a bunch of longstanding proposals aimed at gun traffickers and criminals. These include cracking down on dealers at gun shows, banning high-capacity ammunition clips and revoking the protection of gun makers from liability suits.

I could make a persuasive case for most of these ideas (particularly the limit on ammunition), except that, taken together, they wouldn’t do very much to prevent the kind of shooting we saw in Roseburg — or in Newtown, or Tucson, or in name-your-blood-soaked-town. This Chris Harper-Mercer didn’t buy his guns at unregulated gun shows, nor did he spray large quantities of bullets indiscriminately.

The Democratic response brings to mind the memorable words of Rahm Emanuel, who, as White House chief of staff during the worst of the financial crisis, remarked that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. The underlying issue, as most urban Democrats see it, is the American gun culture itself, and shootings like the one in Oregon present an opening to press the larger case.

Then you have these Republican leaders — you know, in the Lord of the Flies sense of the word — whose responses mostly range somewhere between philosophical and callous. Jeb Bush despairs, clumsily, that people do crazy stuff and you can’t always stop them, while Ben Carson says it actually couldn’t happen to him because he’d swat the gun away and do some kind of ninja thing. Imagine being the grieving parent who had to hear that.

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Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail uniformly reject any problem with the guns themselves and point, instead, to some vague and ethereal concept of “mental illness” in the society. The implication being that even if you could wave a magic wand and disappear all of the 300 million-odd guns in the country tomorrow, tormented 20-somethings would still be bursting into classrooms armed with Ginsu knives or cat-o’-nine-tails.

I kind of doubt it.

The truth, of course, is that these kinds of shootings have nothing to do with the firearms enthusiasts you find at gun shows, or the millions of Americans who get treatment for some form of mental illness and pose a danger to no one. What’s at issue in these isolated cases is how to keep guns away from a very small number of profoundly sick individuals (and in some cases from the parents who, for reasons I find impossible to fathom, actually encourage their disturbed kids to use firearms, as happened in Newtown and Roseburg).

This is where Murphy, a seventh-term congressman and clinical psychologist of 40 years, comes in. As a commander in the Navy Reserve, he still treats traumatized soldiers at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Murphy, who leads a subcommittee on government oversight and investigations, asked the Republican leadership if he could look into government programs that are supposed to address the most severe and violent kinds of mental illness. His investigation led him to write the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, known familiarly in the Capitol by its bill number, 2646.

Murphy’s sprawling bill would amend the existing federal privacy laws, so that in cases of serious mental illness (and only in those cases), a consulting doctor would have the ability to call the patient’s parent or caregiver and share information about medications and follow-up treatment. Not incidentally, that’s when a doctor might also learn something about guns in the home.

That same loosening of the privacy laws would apply to universities and other institutions, so that administrators could let parents know if a student had been treated for an acute bout of mental illness.

Under 2646, Medicaid would no longer deny reimbursement for hospitals with more than 16 psychiatric beds — a decades-old rule meant to shut down hospitals of the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest variety. Nor would the program prohibit urgent-care doctors from immediately handing off a patient to a psychiatrist without having to wait a day, as it does now.

If you try to buy a gun tomorrow, the federal database for background checks will flag you as a threat only if you’ve been given involuntary treatment for mental illness — that is, if you’ve been forcibly brought to a hospital or committed against your will. Murphy wants to increase the number of therapists and available beds in rural communities, to make involuntary commitment a more practical option for judges.

The bill would modestly fund a series of pilot projects for programs that have succeeded in the states, like a telepsychiatry hotline for primary care doctors, while steering money away from federal priorities like the one advising stressed kids to drink fruit smoothies. (Seriously. Read the General Accounting Office’s full report.) And 2646 would create a new assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services to oversee all federal programs dedicated to mental health.

No one is suggesting that Murphy’s proposals, many of which I’ve elided here, would magically transform the culture or prevent more heartbreaking mass shootings. But it’s fair to say that it would give doctors, judges, families and schools more tools to work with when they come in contact with a severely disturbed kid who might be armed.

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Faculty members embrace before returning to Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., on Monday. (Photo: John Locher/AP)

And it’s worth noting that 2646 could have a real impact on suicidal patients, too, who account for the vast majority of gun-related tragedies in America.

“The federal policies toward serious mental illness are abusive and neglectful and make it even worse for people who are minorities or low income, plain and simple,” Murphy told me when we sat down in his office earlier this week. He is brisk and businesslike, in the manner of a psychologist, although he looks a bit like Steve Carell.

Murphy is a loyal Republican, with the standard-issue bust of Ronald Reagan sitting on an end table. But he steadfastly refused to get into a dead-end conversation about the Second Amendment or gun ownership generally.

“I’m focused on what’s in their head, not in their hand,” he said. “I want to prevent the problems, and when they emerge, I want to ensure that we do the proper risk assessment, and that persons who have a tendency toward violence, if they are seriously mentally ill, should not be able to attain weapons. That’s what I’m focused on cleaning up. That’s what I can do.”

Only he can’t — or not without some support from his own party’s leadership, anyway. At a minimum, you’d think Murphy’s bill would spark a long overdue conversation about the balance between civil liberties, on one hand, and public safety from gun violence on the other.

That’s a debate we’ve been having when it comes to Islamic terrorism for years now. It’s a good bet that most parents worry more about some psychotic shooter in their kids’ school then they do about the Islamic State, and yet there’s virtually no discussion in the country about when we sacrifice medical confidentiality to get guns away from those who are clearly dangerous.

But while more than a dozen lawmakers have signed on to Murphy’s bill since last week (he has, at last count, 97 Republican co-sponsors and 40 Democrats), 2646 may well remain stuck in the purgatory of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has been focused on other worthy initiatives, like investing in cures for rare diseases.

When I asked Murphy why he thought his bill hadn’t come up for a vote, he shrugged and said he didn’t know.

What we do know is that Republicans are generally wary of anything that runs afoul of libertarians or gun-loving conspiracy theorists, or any bill that expands the reach of government. Just as the White House — which could be jumping on this bill as a consensus measure to address the shootings — doesn’t want to do anything that might be seen as blaming mental illness, rather than blaming the gun.

And so the sad fact is that a sensible bill that actually might begin to do something about this sickening entanglement of guns and delusion has about as much chance of reaching the president’s desk as we do of getting through the next six months without another classroom slaughter.

Washington already has its Murphy’s Law, and it’s not the one that could save some lives.

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