Bipartisan gun violence deal supports 'major investments' for behavioral health, telehealth programs

Senators reached a bipartisan compromise on gun violence and school safety this weekend that includes new federal investments for mental health services and telehealth.

Announced Sunday morning by a group of 20 senators—10 Republicans, nine Democrats and one independent—the package was met with open arms by party leaders and is likely to pass through both chambers of Congress.

While the agreement does not include the outright bans on semiautomatic assault rifle purchases or age restrictions backed by most Democrats, it does introduce new scrutiny for buyers under 21 years of age, stiffer penalties for illegal straw purchases of firearms and grants for states to implement red flag laws.

Also core to the proposed deal are “major investments” in mental health and supportive services delivered through community behavioral health centers and schools.

For the former, these behavioral health investments would fund community suicide prevention programs as well as support services around crisis and trauma intervention and recovery, according to the senators.

In schools, the money would help expand early identification and intervention programs alongside other school-based mental health and wraparound services, they said.

Further supporting these investments would be additional funds aimed at increasing mental and behavioral telehealth accessibility “for youth and families in crisis,” the senators said.

“Our plan increases needed mental health resources, improves school safety and support for students, and helps ensure dangerous criminals and those who are adjudicated as mentally ill can’t purchase weapons,” the senators said in their announcement. “Most importantly, our plan saves lives while also protecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. We look forward to earning broad, bipartisan support and passing our commonsense proposal into law.”

Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, John Cornyn, R-Texas, Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, and Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, led the group of lawmakers during negotiations fueled by national outrage at the recent mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and elsewhere.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and President Joe Biden each released statements calling for the package’s swift movement into law.

“Obviously, it does not do everything that I think is needed, but it reflects important steps in the right direction, and would be the most significant gun safety legislation to pass Congress in decades,” Biden said in a Sunday statement. “With bipartisan support, there are no excuses for delay, and no reason why it should not quickly move through the Senate and the House.”

Gerald Harmon, M.D., president of the American Medical Association (AMA), said Sunday that the deal “will save lives” and “shows compromise is possible” between the two parties.  

“The measures announced today must be only a first step in confronting the public health crisis of gun violence,” Harmon said in a statement. “The [AMA] and the American people, by large majorities, support additional, significant steps to stop this scourge. We urge all senators to support this deal and to continue working together to prevent the type of violence we as physicians see on a daily basis in emergency departments, trauma centers and morgues in every single state of our country.”

The AMA is among several healthcare industry groups and professional organizations that consider gun violence to be a public health crisis.

Many health systems have taken similar positions over the years, most recently with CEOs from major names like Northwell Health, Permanente Medical Group and LifeBridge Health signing onto a letter last week calling for senators to take action on gun violence.