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U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed a bill Thursday that would give veterans — previously unable to purchase firearms because of a mental health diagnosis — access to firearms.

The bill passed by a vote of 240-175.

U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee who led the opposition to the bill, said the legislation ignores the reality of veteran suicide.

“Today, on this day that we have this debate, 20 brave men and women who have worn the uniform in service to this country will take their lives in suicide,” Esty said. “And the vast majority of them will use a gun.”

In the case of suicide, the means matters, Esty added.

“Research has shown that more than 85 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm are ultimately fatal, compared with just 5 percent with any other means,” Esty said. “And that’s why addressing the public health crisis in the veterans’ community demands a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to ensure that veterans in crisis do not have easy access to guns and that they get the care that they need and deserve.”

She said there’s questions about whether this bill would apply retroactively to the 170,000 veterans currently prohibited from buying a gun because their names are in the National Criminal Background Check System.

She said while there is a disagreement about what would actually happen. Her reading of the bill is that it would be read together with the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007, which requires federal agencies to update the records they have previously shared with NICS. That means “should this bill pass, the VA would be required to remove the 170,000 records they had previously shared with NICS, since none of those was approved by a court, nor did they meet the new standard established by this bill.”

Of those 170,000 veterans currently prohibited from possessing a firearm, almost 20,000 of them were diagnosed with schizophrenia, over 11,000 with dementia, and over 5,000 with Alzheimer’s.

“For a veteran suffering with a significant mental health condition, like one of these, access to a firearm is a serious matter,” Esty said.

She also pointed out that the bill was rushed through the committee process and no votes were ever taken at the committee level.

Republicans argued that the current rules deprive veterans of their Second Amendment rights without due process.

The National Rifle Association praised passage of the bill and encouraged the Senate to take up a similar measure.

“The constitutional rights of our veterans must be strongly protected,” Chris W. Cox, executive director, NRA-ILA, said. “The House vote today is a step forward in ensuring our veterans’ rights are not infringed upon.”

The NRA believes the VA has been effectively banning from gun ownership veterans who receive disability benefits and use a fiduciary to help manage those benefits.

“Needing help managing your money does not make you a danger to society. The NRA is pleased with the House vote today and we look forward to the Senate taking action soon,” Cox said in a statement.