Could there be any good outcome from making it easier for seriously mentally ill citizens to buy guns? The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives apparently thinks so, voting 235-180 along party lines to overturn an Obama administration rule extending background checks for Social Security recipients who are mentally unable to work or care for their own finances.
The regulation was part of an effort by the Obama administration to strengthen gun control laws after the 2012 school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association opposed it, but the former president finalized it in the last days of his administration. The House bill to reverse Obama's regulation now goes to the Senate.
Gun-control advocates say the expanded regulation, increasing scrutiny on about 75,000 recipients of Social Security disability benefits, would have had limited impact on gun violence. But limited impact in a nation with weak gun laws is better than nothing.
It also might have prevented the deaths of some seriously mentally ill people. Mental health experts say that between 6,000 and 18,000 mentally ill people kill themselves with guns every year. The National Alliance on Mental Illness cites research that about 90 percent of people who commit suicide have experienced mental illness.
Psychiatrists say the mentally ill are no more prone to committing violence against others than the population at large, despite highly publicized mass shootings by the likes of James Holmes in Aurora, Colo., and Adam Lanza in Newtown, who had histories of mental illness. They say about 4 percent of all violence in the United States is attributable to
serious mental illness.
Janet Delana of Wellington, Mo., near Kansas City, asked Congress to hold off on repealing the regulation, saying it would have prevented her mentally ill daughter from buying a gun she used to kill her father in 2012.
"She shot her father to death, and tried once again to take her own life," said Delana in an Associated Press story about the regulation. "She is now in an institution for life, and my husband is gone."
The regulation would not have denied guns to mentally ill citizens. It would have flagged them for the Social Security Administration to report to the federal background check system so their names would come up if they tried to purchase firearms.
The NRA and the American Civil Liberties Union argued the rule violates the Second Amendment rights of people with mental illness without adequate due process. But screening people with serious mental illnesses before they purchase guns doesn't seem like too much to ask.
A person who is unable to handle forms for disability benefits may be too ill to own a gun. The regulation didn't take away their right; it simply added a layer of protection for the rest of us.