Did the House Just Let People with Mental Illness Buy Guns?
There’s a lot of misinformation floating around with the recent gun vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to overturn a rule made late in the last administration’s tenure. The final rule, announced in December 2016 by the Social Security Administration, was a misguided effort to try and keep guns out of the hands of some people with mental illness.
But it was a bad rule to begin with that should’ve never been finalized, because it didn’t take into account a person’s likelihood to commit a crime or likelihood of using a gun to commit violence. Furthermore, the rule violated the due process rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
Lots of people mistakenly believe that people with mental illness are more likely to commit violence. This is a myth, not a fact.
From that myth, lots of people also believed — again, mistakenly — that the United States already limits people who have mental illness from purchasing a firearm. Such a rule or law, were it to be true, could impact one quarter of the population believed to have a mental illness. But no, people with mental illness can purchase a gun legally just as a person with cancer or diabetes can (assuming they pass the ordinary background checks).
What Did the Social Security Administration Try and Do?
With no national medical records (since we have no national healthcare system), the government is in a pickle when it comes to trying to determine whose hands they should try and keep guns out of. So the Social Security Administration (?!) was tasked with coming up with an equivalent measure. Rather than determine a person’s instability or level of dangerousness — information no federal agency has or tracks — they came up what they thought was something equivalent: incapacity.
There is, of course, zero research implicating a person’s mental capacity or lack thereof with likelihood to commit violence. But don’t let good science get in the way of bad policy, right?
So in December 2016, the Social Security Administration decided that anyone who was incapable of managing their own disability benefits was, on the face of it, incapable of handling a gun. They were simply going to hand over the names to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System of 75,000 people who get social security benefits or disability checks where the check was made out to someone else who handles that person’s benefits or finances. That was the arbitrary, misguided yardstick in which they chose to measure a person’s dangerousness or capacity to commit harm against others.
Why This Was a Bad Rule — For Everyone
You don’t often find the ACLU and the National Rifle Association on the same side of an argument. Yet in this fight, they both agreed this was a bad rule. And as an advocate for people with mental illness, I’d have to agree. As the ACLU noted:
We oppose this rule because it advances and reinforces the harmful stereotype that people with mental disabilities, a vast and diverse group of citizens, are violent. There is no data to support a connection between the need for a representative payee to manage one’s Social Security disability benefits and a propensity toward gun violence. The rule further demonstrates the damaging phenomenon of “spread,” or the perception that a disabled individual with one area of impairment automatically has additional, negative and unrelated attributes.
We don’t want any random government agency making rules that take away people’s Constitutional rights. That’s just bad policy. Imagine instead of guns, we were talking about free speech. What if some federal agency decided that everyone who ever had a cancer diagnosis was no longer qualified to run for public office? (Since, you know, they might get it again and die while in office.) These are big policy decisions being made not by lawmakers, but by government bureaucrats.
While the rule seemed likely to affect only 75,000 people initially, it seems like had it been allowed to stand, it would’ve readily been expanded to include additional people with mental illness in the future. Discriminating against people with mental illness is not a thoughtful policy strategy. Nor is it a policy based in the data.
Keeping Guns Away From People Who Commit Violence
We all want to keep guns out of the hands of people who use them to commit violence against fellow citizens. But since we don’t have any reliable, scientific way of determining whether a person is likely to commit violence in the future, we can’t do this easily today. In short, there’s no quick or easy way to keep guns out of the hands of people who will use them to murder others. At least, not when it’s a Constitutionally-guaranteed right.
This is the nation we live in. It can’t be fixed by band-aid rules promulgated by federal agencies. Such changes need to be made by Congress, with thoughtful, reasoned discussion about how to best address the issue of random gun violence in our country.
Scapegoating a whole class of people — those with mental illness which make up to 25 percent of the population — is not the way to do this.
For more information
ACLU Letter to the House about the NICS Final Rule (Feb 1, 2017)
News item about the rule when first proposed earlier in 2016: Rule could keep guns from Social Security disability recipients, and it’s taking heat
Grohol, J. (2018). Did the House Just Let People with Mental Illness Buy Guns?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 31, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/did-the-house-just-let-people-with-mental-illness-buy-guns/