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

PHOTO: Finance Committee member Sen. Tom Coburn (R) Oklahoma on This WeekABC News
Finance Committee member Sen. Tom Coburn (R) Oklahoma on 'This Week'

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.

After the Newtown, Conn., shooting, stronger mental-health checks have surfaced as the most obvious common ground for bipartisan gun reform.

"We have to, I think, look at the mental health aspect," conservative Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said during ABC's "This Week" roundtable after the shooting. "I'm a conceal carry permit-holder. I own a Glock 23. I've got a shotgun. I'm not the person you need to worry about. And there are millions of Americans who deal with this properly. It's our Second Amendment right to do so. But we have to look at the mental health access that these people have."

But as Congress found out in 2007, revamping mental-health provisions can be difficult. Some of Coburn's objections centered on complicated details, like repealed funding for state processing of petitions to reinstate gun rights, allowance of lawsuits to restore gun rights, and how to treat veterans who have recovered from comas. His problems with the 2007 bill serve as reminders of how many decisions must be made when reforming background checks, and how many opportunities for disagreement can arise.

Coburn wants to keep guns from reaching the hands of the mentally ill. In January 2011, he appeared on "Meet the Press" and said, "Let's fix the real problem," discussing the shooting of then-congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. "Here's a mentally deranged person who had access to a gun that shouldn't have had access to a gun." But the same issues raised in 2007 are still controversial: Last month, Coburn and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., battled over veterans' gun rights when the annual defense authorization bill came up for debate.