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Senate’s repeal on gun regulations fights mental health stigma

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Senate’s repeal on gun regulations fights mental health stigma

Raka Sarkar | Senior Staff Illustrator

Raka Sarkar | Senior Staff Illustrator

Raka Sarkar | Senior Staff Illustrator

Raka Sarkar | Senior Staff Illustrator

By Jeremy Wang | Columnist

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In the first of many steps to undo various firearm regulations implemented by the Obama administration, the Senate voted last week to repeal a provision that would prevent people with mental disorders from purchasing a firearm.

The provision, found in the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007, expands the criteria that would cause one to fail a background check — making it harder for people with varying degrees of mental illnesses to legally own firearms. Under the provision, the Social Security Administration is required to report anyone deemed unable to manage their personal affairs — including financial paperwork or Social Security forms — to the National Instant Criminal Background Check database. Under the rule, 75,000 Social Security disability recipients would be regarded as prohibited persons, fail their federally mandated criminal background check and be marked as individuals withsubnormal intelligence or mental illness, incompetency, condition or disease.”

By passing the repeal with a 57-43 vote, the Senate made the right move. At its core, the proposed regulation would cause individuals to fail a criminal background check without having committed a crime — effectively criminalizing mental illness — while adding to the already-damaging stigma that the mentally ill are dangerous.

There are a variety of ways to fail a background check, including felony convictions, domestic violence charges, restraining orders or dishonorable discharges from the military. But all of these disqualifiers, unlike the proposed rule, require some form of a court process, guaranteeing a due process before stripping someone of their Second Amendment rights.

The federally mandated background check relies on convictions on serious and often violent crimes to ensure guns don’t fall into the hands of dangerous individuals. But needing third-party help on your Social Security paperwork can simply mean a battle with dementia or an eating disorder. Such illnesses don’t adversely affect your ability to responsibly own a gun but would cause you to fail the background check under the provision.

“Someone can be incapable of managing their funds but not be dangerous, violent or unsafe,” Dr. Marc Rosen, a Yale psychiatrist who studies how veterans with mental health problems manage their money, told the Los Angeles Times. “They are very different determinations.”

Many advocacy groups for people with disabilities joined the senators voting against the bill, including the American Association of People with Disabilities, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Disability Rights Network. The National Council on Disability argued there was simply “no nexus between the inability to manage money and the ability to safely and responsibly own, possess or use a firearm.”

And if the regulation stayed in the place, not only the requirements but also the appeals process would increase the suffering of those affected. Such people would have to file a petition to prove their gun ownership would not be a danger to themselves or the public, a humiliating process that would disarm law-abiding citizens despite no proof that their ownership is harmful.

While some may point to this vote as the gun lobby looking for reasons to strike down gun regulations, the National Rifle Association has enthusiastically supported gun policy reform aimed at mental health issues in the past. Recently, the NRA supported the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act endorsed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The bill would increase funding for mental health care and codify a regulatory effort by the Obama administration to redefine the mental health section of the background check. It also took aim at the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 by attempting to remove the Social Security provision.

Critics of the NRA — including gun control-lobbying giant Everytown — claimed the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act was a thinly veiled attempt by the gun lobby to weaken gun laws in the nation. The Act never saw a vote, dying in committee. But with the NRA frequently supporting other gun reforms aimed at mental health, it’s clear gun rights advocates are searching for a solution and not just attempting to deregulate guns.

Even the most notable gun-lobbying group, the NRA, recognizes the urgent need to address mental health concerns — but that’s not what the Social Security provision was doing. We shouldn’t be passing laws that cause tens of thousands of law-abiding Americans to fail criminal background checks in an attempt to address mental health and gun policy reform.

The rejection passed in the Senate with four Democratic Senators crossing party lines to redact the legislation put in place by Obama, further highlighting its weaknesses. The ruling passed in the House earlier this month, meaning President Trump only has to sign off on the repeal in order to expunge the regulation — a step he should most certainly take.

Current gun control policies must be reformed to better address mental health concerns — that’s something both sides of Congress can agree on. Reform must be comprehensive, ensuring mental health care is properly funded and accessible while offering support for federal background check infrastructure. But stigmatizing all mental illness as dangerous — just for the sake of stricter gun regulation — is a harmful step in the wrong direction.

Jeremy primarily writes on gun policy and violent crime.

Write to Jeremy at jiw115@pitt.edu.

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Senate’s repeal on gun regulations fights mental health stigma