Sen. Tom Coburn Could Be Biggest Obstacle to Gun Control Changes

PHOTO: Finance Committee member Sen. Tom Coburn (R) Oklahoma on This Week
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If there's one person most likely to keep new gun-control measures from passing Congress swiftly, it's Sen. Tom Coburn.

Conservatives revere the Oklahoma Republican for his fiscal hawkishness and regular reports on government waste. But he's also a staunch gun-rights advocate, and he's shown a willingness to obstruct even popular legislation, something in the Senate that a single member can easily accomplish.

That mixture could make Coburn the biggest threat to quick passage of new gun-control laws in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., shooting that has prompted even pro-gun NRA-member lawmakers like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to endorse a new look at how access to the most powerful weapons can be limited.

Coburn's office did not respond to multiple requests to discuss the current push for gun legislation. But given his record, it's hard to imagine Coburn agreeing to a major, new proposal without some fuss.

The last time Congress considered a major gun law -- one with broad support -- Coburn held it up, proving that the details of gun control are sticky when a conservative senator raises unpopular objections, especially a senator who's joked that it's too bad he can't carry a gun on the Senate floor.

After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Congress heard similar pleadings for new gun limits, some of them similarly to those being heard now. When it came to light that Seung-Hui Cho, the mentally disturbed 23-year-old who opened fire on campus, passed a background check despite mental-health records indicating he was a suicide threat, a push began to include such records in determining whether a person should be able to buy a gun.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., a longtime gun-control advocate whose husband was killed in a mass shooting on the Long Island Rail Road in 1996, introduced a widely supported bill to do just that. The NRA backed her National Instant Check System Improvement Amendments Act of 2007.

But Coburn didn't. The senator blocked action on the bill, citing concerns over patient privacy, limited gun access for veterans, and the cost of updating the background-check system,

In blocking that bill, Coburn pointed to a government study noting that 140,000 veterans had been referred to the background-check registry since 1998 without their knowledge.

"I am certainly understanding of the fact that some veterans could be debilitated to the point that such cataloguing is necessary, but we should ensure this process does not entangle the vast majority of our combat veterans who simply seek to readjust to normal life at the conclusion of their tours. I am troubled by the prospect of veterans refusing necessary treatment and the benefits they are entitled to. As I'm sure you would agree we cannot allow any stigma to be associated with mental healthcare or treatment of Traumatic Brain Injury," Coburn wrote to acting Veterans Secretary Gordon Mansfield.

Coburn succeeded in changing the legislation, negotiating a set of tweaks that shaved $100 million over five years, made it easier for prohibited gun owners to restore their gun rights by petitioning the government, and notifying veterans that if they abdicated control of their finances they would be added to the gun database. The bill passed and President Bush signed it in January 2008.

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