Trump Signs Bill Allowing Mentally Ill to Buy Guns

Ken Terry

March 01, 2017

On Tuesday, President Trump signed a bill that overturned an Obama-era rule designed to stop certain individuals with mental disorders from buying guns.

Issued near the end of Obama's presidency, the rule banned gun ownership by people who are on Social Security disability because they have mental health problems that prevent them from working and who must have someone manage their financial affairs. The Social Security Administration would have been required to send the names of these beneficiaries to the federal system that does background checks on people applying for gun licenses.

According to press reports, about 75,000 people would have been affected by the regulation had it been implemented. The Social Security Administration approved the rule on December 19, 2016, but under the Congressional Review Act, Congress has 60 legislative days to disapprove of any new regulation by majority vote.

In the first half of February, the House and Senate passed the legislation to overturn the Obama administration rule, mainly along party lines. The bill's passage revived the controversy that had attended the regulation when it was issued. The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association — organizations not usually aligned in their legislative positions — joined with advocacy groups for the disabled to assail the rule and to support the bill to eliminate it.

Opponents of the rule argued that barring gun ownership by this group of people with mental health problems was a violation of due process and cast too wide a net. Jeffrey Swanson, MD, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, North Carolina, noted in a Chicago Tribune op-ed article that a Florida study had shown that the vast majority of individuals with serious mental illnesses are not violent or suicidal. They are no more likely to use a gun to harm others than the general adult population in Florida, he said.

In contrast, editorials in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times said that the rule made sense because it would have kept guns out of the hands of people with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and psychotic disorders. The Tribune argued that if someone is on Social Security because of mental illness and cannot manage their own affairs, they should not be able to own a gun.

During the Senate's consideration of the bill, the Times noted, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), "envisioned" that the rule might prevent people with eating disorders from buying guns. "To the contrary," the Times said, "the rule was focused narrowly on disabled individuals who require a trustee for personal management. They would have had the right to appeal."

Despite the solid Republican support for the bill to allow mentally ill people to have guns, some Republicans in Congress loudly called for better mental health care in the wake of the Sandy Hook, Connecticut, massacre. In that incident, a mentally troubled young man used a legally purchased assault weapon to kill 20 children and six school employees, along with his mother and himself.

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