A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Twisting Feinstein’s Words on Military Vets


Q: Did Sen. Dianne Feinstein say all military veterans are mentally ill and should not be allowed to own guns?

A: No. She said veterans should not be exempt from her proposed assault weapons ban, citing post-traumatic stress disorder as a concern. She did not say all veterans suffer from PTSD or that all veterans should not own guns.

FULL QUESTION

Did Dianne Feinstein really say all veterans are mentally ill and should not be allowed to own guns? The quote was supposed to have occurred in a Senate committee meeting.

FULL ANSWER

This claim — which has gone viral — grossly distorts what Feinstein actually said at a March 7 Senate hearing on her legislation, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013.

At the hearing, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas offered an amendment that would have exempted military veterans from the assault weapons ban. The bill provides very few exceptions for individuals. As we’ve written before, the bill exempts active military members and law enforcement. It also provides an exemption, in some cases, for retired law enforcement officials. The legislation says that if a law enforcement agency sells or transfers a semiautomatic weapon on the prohibited list to an officer upon retirement or if that officer had such a weapon for “official use before such retirement” then the retired officer can keep the weapon if that person is “retired in good standing” and is “not otherwise prohibited from receiving a firearm, of a semiautomatic weapon.”

Cornyn argued that if retired police officers can keep their weapons, then military veterans should be able, too. He spoke as if all retired police officers are exempt, but they are not. (The committee’s discussion of Cornyn’s amendment can be found at the 1-hour, 32-minute mark of the C-Span video tape of the bill’s markup.)

Feinstein, a California Democrat, noted that there was no exemption for military veterans in the assault weapons ban that was enacted in 1994 as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. That ban expired in 2004. She then went on to discuss her concerns for providing an exemption for military veterans.

Feinstein, March 7: If I understand this, this adds an exemption of retired military. As I understand our bill, no issue has arose in this regard during the 10 years the expired ban was in effect and what we did in the other bill was exempt possession by the United States or a department or agency of the United States. So that included active military.

The problem with expanding this is that, you know, with the advent of PTSD, which I think is a new phenomenon as a product of the Iraq War, it’s not clear how the seller or transferrer of a firearm covered by this bill would verify that an individual was a member, or a veteran, and that there was no impairment of that individual with respect to having a weapon like this.

So, you know, I would be happy to sit down with you again and see if we could work something out but I think we have to– if you’re going to do this — find a way that veterans who are incapacitated for one reason or another mentally don’t have access to this kind of weapon.

First, Feinstein is wrong when she says that post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, “is a new phenomenon as a product of the Iraq War.”

Combat veterans, crime victims, survivors of natural disasters and others who experienced traumatic events have long suffered from symptoms of what we now know as PTSD. According to the National Institutes of Health, PTSD was officially recognized in 1980 “as a disorder with specific symptoms,” and it was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A 1990 study found 15 percent of all Vietnam veterans were suffering from PTSD.

But Cornyn and others have misrepresented her remarks. After Feinstein spoke, Cornyn had this exchange with the committee chairman, Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont.

Cornyn, March 7: I think it’s a mistake to paint so broadly as to say that any active duty military or veterans can’t use these kinds of weapons or any other lawful weapons for self-defense, and certainly I wouldn’t want to suggest that we think people who served in the military all suffer from some debilitating illness that would prohibit them from being able to defend themselves.

Leahy: That suggestion has not been made by anybody on either side of the aisle here.

Leahy is right. Feinstein did not say that “people in the military all suffer from some debilitating illness,” and she did not say that they “can’t use … any other lawful weapons.” She was clearly talking about a subset of veterans (not all of them) and certain guns (assault weapons prohibited under her bill) when she expressed concerns about a gun seller being able to verify that there is “no impairment of that individual with respect to having a weapon like this.” (The emphasis is our own.)

Regardless, as The Daily Beast reported three days later, her comments “ignited a firestorm” on the Internet.

The Daily Beast, March 10: Not surprisingly, these comments have ignited a firestorm of angry responses that have spread across social media and the conservative and pro-gun blogosphere.

On the Constitutional Conservatives website, one post said Feinstein “needs to go to prison over this matter—treason! This woman is despicable … They’re just using PTSD and/or mental illness as an excuse to deny veterans their God-given Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms.”

Conservative website and bloggers twisted her words to suggest she meant ALL vets. One site, mrconservative.com, posted a blog item on March 9 that gave this interpretation of Feinstein’s remarks: “Translation? All vets suffer from PTSD; PTSD makes them crazy; crazy people can’t get guns.” That post was “liked” by more than 59,000 Facebook users.

The headline of that post was, “Sen. Feinstein Says All Our Veterans Are Mentally Ill And Can’t Own Guns.” All veterans? All guns? No, that’s not what she said.

Feinstein’s concern about the military is not misplaced. It’s well documented that military veterans suffering from PTSD are a danger to themselves and others. The FBI website carries a July 2011 article advising law enforcement how to negotiate with war veterans in crisis situations. In that article, the FBI cites studies that show the increased prevalence of PTSD among military veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

FBI, July 2011: The prevalence of major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for those returning from Iraq may be from 15.6 to 17.1 percent; the figure may be 11.2 percent for those returning from Afghanistan (pre-Iraq troop drawdown). Additional screening and elapsed time since coming home are important factors in recognizing the continued presence of PTSD and mental health problems as a result of wartime experiences. A second screening conducted 3 to 6 months after active-duty military personnel returned showed an increase of reported mental health problems from 11.8 percent to 16.7 percent and for reserve personnel from 12.7 percent to 24.5 percent.

Earlier this year, former Marine Eddie Routh shot and killed retired Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle at a gun range. At the time, Kyle — who wrote “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History” — was helping Routh overcome PTSD. Routh’s mother, Jodi, released a statement that said, “We wish we could thank Chris Kyle for his genuine interest in helping our son overcome his battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We want others with PTSD to know their struggle is recognized and we hope this tragedy will somehow help in getting greater care for and assistance to those in need.”

Military veterans — or anyone for that matter — suffering from PTSD may or may not be prohibited from purchasing a firearm, under the current background check system. Only those “adjudicated mental defective or involuntarily committed to a mental institution or incompetent to handle [their] own affairs” would be denied the right to purchase a firearm from a federally licensed gun dealer under the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

In a January 2012 item, the National Rifle Association debunked another viral rumor that the Veterans Administration was taking away guns based on questions they ask of military veterans.

NRA, Jan. 6, 2012: [A]lthough some VA records are reported to NICS, a record will only be reported if the person has been “adjudicated as a mental defective” — in other words, that the person is mentally incompetent.

At the VA, a person can only be found incompetent after a lengthy process that includes the opportunity for a hearing and appeal. Just telling a nurse you feel “stressed” (as the email claims) wouldn’t be enough. And the NICS Improvement Amendment Act of 2007 not only makes clear that any “adjudication” without those procedures won’t result in the loss of gun rights, but also provides a way for those who have been found incompetent to get the finding reversed.

At the hearing, Feinstein appeared to be talking about those veterans who may be suffering from PTSD but not adjudicated as such when she expressed concern about the ability of gun dealers to verify “that there was no impairment of that individual with respect to having a weapon like this.” She also expressed a willingness to negotiate a compromise that would address Cornyn’s concern that her bill was too broadly written by excluding all military veterans.

What she did not do is say all military veterans are mentally ill and should be prohibited from owning guns.

— Eugene Kiely

Sources

U.S. Senate. “S. 150, Assault Weapons Ban of 2013.” (as introduced 24 Jan 2013.)

Farley, Robert. “Proposed Weapons Ban Exempts Government Officials?” FactCheck.org. 4 Feb 2013.

Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Pub. L. 103-322. 13 Sep 1994.

Farley, Robert. “Did the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban Work?” FactCheck.org. 1 Feb 2013.

National Institute of Mental Health. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Undated, accessed 17 Apr 2013.

National Institutes of Health. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Undated, accessed 17 Apr 2013.

The National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “PTSD Research Quarterly.” Fall 1990.

Reno, Jamie. “Dianne Feinstein Ignites Debate About Veterans With PTSD and Guns.” The Daily Beast. 10 Mar 2013.

Sen. Feinstein Says All Our Veterans Are Mentally Ill And Can’t Own Guns.” mrconservative.com. 9 Mar 2013.

Asken, Michael J. et al. “Police Negotiations with War Veterans: Seeing Through the Residual Fog of War.” FBI. Jul 2011.

Fernandez, Manny. “Ex-Sniper Extended Hand to Troubled Marine Accused in His Death.” New York Times. 4 Feb 2013.

Hallman, Tristan. ” ‘Incredibly heartbroken’ family of accused killer issues statement on SEAL sniper’s death.” Dallas Morning News. 26 Feb 2013.

FBI. “National Instant Criminal Background Check System fact sheet.” Undated, accessed 17 Apr 2013.