The Obama administration is seeking to strengthen gun control after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., including plugging holes in the background check system by directing numerous government agencies to search their records and identify any information relevant to identifying dangerous and mentally unstable persons.
The administration is pushing to ban Social Security beneficiaries from owning guns if they lack the mental capacity to manage their own affairs, a move that is intended to bring the Social Security Administration in line with laws regulating who gets reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”). The NICS is used to prevent gun sales to felons, drug addicts, immigrants in the country illegally, the mentally ill and others. The administration is attempting to bring all federal agencies in line with the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Law) which mandated background checks for gun purchases.
Since the creation of NICS, the Veterans Administration has been reporting all veterans who have been declared incompetent to manage pension or disability payments and assigned a fiduciary within its system.
This wide net includes anybody found by a “court, board, commission or other lawful authority” to be lacking “the mental capacity to contract or manage his own affairs” for a wide variety of reasons, including those with a bad memory or the inability to balance a checkbook, and not necessarily those who pose a potential threat to themselves or others.
If the Social Security Administration adopts this same test, potentially millions of people will be affected. About 4.2 million adults receive Social Security monthly benefits that are managed by “representative payees.” These are people who, in the language of federal gun laws, are unable to manage their own affairs due to “marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease” who have an appointed representative to manage their financial affairs. Those persons would likely be identified through the reporting of anyone who has been declared incompetent to manage their own pension or disability payments and has been assigned a fiduciary as a result.
Social Security would generally report names under the same “mental defective” category as the VA. The agency is still figuring out how that definition should be applied.
Opponents of the plan maintain that the implementation of such a background check system could unfairly exclude large numbers of people who pose no real danger to others from gun ownership. Gun rights activists, mental health experts and advocates for the disabled say that expanding the list of prohibited gun owners based on financial competence is wrongheaded. Though such a ban would keep at least some people who pose a danger to themselves or others from owning guns, the strategy undoubtedly would also include those incapable of managing their funds but are not dangerous, violent or unsafe.
About 2.7 million people are now receiving disability payments from Social Security for mental health problems, a potentially higher risk category for gun ownership. An addition 1.5 million have their finances handled by others for a variety of reasons.
Gun rights advocates and the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency, have indicated they would oppose any policy that used assignment of a representative payee as a basis to take any fundamental right from people with disabilities.
On July 21, 2015, Congressman Sam Johnson (R-Tex), chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, along with 18 other legislators, sent a letter to the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Carolyn Colvin, urging her to stop providing information on Social Security Income recipients to the NICS.
Does the administration’s approach go too far?
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