Congress nixes regulation that would block gun sales to mentally ill

President Trump is expected to sign the measure, repealing a regulation that would require many mentally ill people on Social Security disability benefits to be listed in an FBI background check system.

Jessica Hill/AP/File
Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14, 2012. The Republican-led Senate voted Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, to block an Obama-era regulation that would prevent an estimated 75,000 people with mental disorders from being able to purchase a firearm.

On Wednesday, the Republican-led Senate voted to repeal a regulation that would have prevented an estimated 75,000 people diagnosed with mental disorders from purchasing a firearm.

The rule, created in the wake of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school by a man diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, was part of a package of regulations aimed at preventing mentally ill people who receive Social Security disability benefits from being able to buy a gun. Senators voted 57-43 to strike down a key part of the regulation that required the Social Security Administration to report anyone who received disability benefits and had mental health conditions to an FBI background check system. 

The resolution of disapproval in the Obama-era measure passed both the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Senate and is expected to be signed into law by President Trump.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, who spearheaded the repeal effort, said that the regulation had been filled with "vague characteristics that do not fit into the federal mentally defective standard," citing sleeping and eating disorders as examples of mental disorders that could lead to an unjust reporting of Social Security disability to the FBI, if they also had a third party to manage the benefits.

"If a specific individual is likely to be violent due to the nature of their mental illness, then the government should have to prove it," said Senator Grassley.

Many Democrats disagreed, however, including Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who represents Newtown, Conn.

"The [Congressional Review Act] we have before us today will make it harder for the federal government to do what we have told them to do for decades, which is to put dangerous people and people who are seriously mentally ill on the list of people who are prohibited from buying a gun," he said from the Senate floor, prior to the vote.

But while opposition and support for the repeal fell mostly along party lines among legislators, many nonpartisan advocacy groups also supported the repeal of the regulation, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which claimed the original rule supported the harmful and false stereotype that "a vast and diverse group of [mentally ill] citizens, are violent." 

"The gun restriction rule is a well-meaning policy that gets some things right, notably its support of federal efforts to improve detection of risky people who should not have legal access to guns," wrote Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, in an editorial for The Washington Post. "But despite its good intentions, what the policy actually does is take away the gun rights of a large category of individuals without any evidence that they pose a risk of harm to self or others, and without legal due process protections commensurate with abridging a constitutional right."

While the rule would have allowed people to appeal if they felt they were inappropriately flagged, Dr. Swanson said that he supports the repeal of the "bad regulation." He added, however, that he would have preferred lawmakers to modify the law in keeping with evidence-based knowledge of the complex issue.

"As a researcher on firearms policy and mental health, I opposed the rule when it was first established. It wasn't supported by evidence, and it was far too broad," he writes. "Now, Republicans are unlikely to revisit evidence-based gun control policy anytime soon."

But other organizations took issue with what they see as a politically-motivated and uncritical repeal of an Obama-era regulation.

"This heartless resolution puts the most vulnerable Americans at risk," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "Make no mistake, this vote was really about deepening the gun industry's customer pool, at the expense of those in danger of hurting themselves or others."

This article contains material from the Associated Press.

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