Washington – The U.S. Senate approved legislation Wednesday that will roll back an Obama administration rule requiring the Social Security Administration to submit information about mentally impaired recipients so they can be added to a list of people barred from purchasing a gun.
The 57-43 vote to overturn Obama’s rule is the first clash over gun control in the new Congress.
“Republicans consistently say we don’t need new gun laws, we just need better enforcement of the laws already on the books. But today, they voted to undermine enforcement of existing law that provides complete information for the background check system,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, one of several Democrats who argued against overturning the rule.
Issued in December in response to Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the rule was expected to add about 75,000 names to a database of people banned from purchasing weapons.
It applies to recipients of disability insurance and supplemental security income who require someone else to manage their benefits because of a disabling mental disorder, ranging from anxiety to dementia or schizophrenia.
Prodded by the National Rifle Association, the GOP-led House voted 235-180 in early February, largely along party lines, to cancel the rule using the Congressional Review Act, a 1996 law that says Congress can repeal rules issued in the previous 60 days.
Gun control groups, and other organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the American Federation of Teachers, lobbied against repeal of the rule.
“This heartless resolution puts the most vulnerable Americans at risk,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign. “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… It seems like the only voice these lap dog politicians listened to today was the corporate gun lobby.”
During Tuesday’s debate in the Senate over the “resolution of disapproval” that would overturn the rule, Murphy said the legislation “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 those who are prohibited from buying guns.”
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), run by the FBI, screens gun purchasers and bars felons and those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution from purchasing a gun. Obama’s rule expanded the NICs list by about 75,000.
Republicans say the former president infringed upon the Second Amendment rights of Social Security recipients and cast too wide a net.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said “bureaucrats,” not doctors, are making the decision over whom to put on the NICS list.
“The personal opinion of a bureaucrat cannot be the basis for taking away a person’s Second Amendment rights,” Grassley said.
Murphy countered that those added to the list are already deemed mentally impaired under federal law.
“The law is clear that federal agencies are required to upload information to NICS of those individuals who cannot manage their own financial affairs because of mental illness. The Supreme Court is clear that this is entirely constitutional. So why are we doing this? Why are we having a debate about rolling back the criminal background check system when 90 percent of Americans support it?
Murphy said those with mental illness are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of crimes, but there are notable exceptions.
“As we have seen these mass shooters walk into places like Sandy Hook Elementary School or a movie theater in Colorado or a classroom in Blacksburg. We know that people with serious mental illness in this country can go buy a weapon and do serious damage with it,” he said.
The NRA calls the rule “a bureaucratic directive based on an entirely new reading of a nearly 50-year-old statute by anti-gun zealots who are willing to target a misunderstood and stigmatized population as an intermediate step to disarming America at large.”
Updated at 12:20 p.m. Feb. 15 with the result of the Senate vote.