Obama Administration To Block Social Security Recipients From Buying Guns If They Can’t Balance A Checkbook

July 19th, 2015

After President Obama failed to achieve any gun control legislation in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, he ordered his administration to take a series of executive actions to limit access to guns. At the time, most of the proposals seemed relatively limited in scope. But now, the ramifications of those actions are coming to light.

The Los Angeles Times reports–in a somewhat murky story without details–that the Obama Administration is incorporating the social security database into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, so that people who “lack the mental capacity to manage their own [financial] affairs” will no longer be able to acquire firearms.

Seeking tighter controls over firearm purchases, the Obama 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 could affect millions whose monthly disability payments are handled by others.

The push is intended to bring the Social Security Administration in line with laws regulating who gets reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, which is used to prevent gun sales to felons, drug addicts, immigrants in the country illegally and others.

A potentially large group within Social Security 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.”

How does this work? The story does not specify, but explains that it may be similar to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has blocked firearm ownership for anyone “who has been declared incompetent to manage pension or disability payments and assigned a fiduciary.” Not that the person poses a threat to anyone else, but that they can’t manage a checkbook.

And how many elderly and disabled people would be deprived of the right to keep and bear arms?

About 4.2 million adults receive monthly benefits that are managed by “representative payees.” …

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.

This is absolutely appalling. Depriving elderly and disabled persons of constitutional rights because they are unable to manage their own finances, without any process, is appalling. The Social Security Department has absolutely no expertise in deciding who should or should not own a gun.

As it works for Veterans, you file an appeal after your rights have been violated, and very few have been granted.

But as of April, just nine of 298 appeals have been granted, according to data provided by the VA. Thirteen others were pending, and 44 were withdrawn after the VA overturned its determination of financial incompetence.

Overman is one of the few who decided to appeal.

He is irritable and antisocial, he said, but not dangerous. “I’ve never been suicidal,” he said. “To me that solves nothing.”

More than a year and a half after Overman filed his challenge, the VA lifted its incompetence ruling, allowing his removal from the background check system before the VA ever had to determine whether he should be trusted with a gun.

There is no showing, whatsoever, that these people pose any threat to others.

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 numerous people who may just have a bad memory or difficulty balancing a checkbook, the critics argue.

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

Even worse, while this program will do little-to-nothing to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, it will have the predictable, and perverse outcome of preventing people with mental health conditions from seeking treatment.

Rosen, the Yale psychiatrist, said some veterans may avoid seeking help for mental health problems out of fear that they would be required to give up their guns. …

Ari Ne’eman, a member of the National Council on Disability, said the independent federal agency would oppose any policy that used assignment of a representative payee as a basis to take any fundamental right from people with disabilities.  “The rep payee is an extraordinarily broad brush,” he said.

I’ve written at some length (here and here) about how depriving disabled persons of guns poses the serious risk of stigmatizing mental illness, and deterring people from seeking medical treatment.

The relationship between guns and mental health is much trickier than those who support gun control laws would have you think. First, most people who have mental health conditions are not dangerous. Second, singling out people with mental health conditions stigmatizes them, and could further harm their mental health. Third, requiring doctors to disclose to the state anyone who may have mental health conditions, with the consequence of depriving them of a civil right, may chill the doctor-patient relationship, and inhibit people who are in need of help from talking to a professional.

New York’s Safe Act requires doctors to report to the state anyone who is “likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.” Then, as the NY Times reports, the state “rubber stamps” those names and puts them on a no-gun list, where they remain for 5 years. Any existing permit is immediately revoked, and all firearms are seized. Only after the permit is revoked–likely with no notice–can someone go to court and petition a judge to remove the name. Already, over 40,000 people have been added to this list. This program exacerbates all three problems I mentioned above.

The story does not provide specifics, but I think that this language is meant to track 22 U.S.C. 922(d)(h), which provides:

(d) It shall be unlawful for any person to sell or otherwise dispose of any firearm or ammunition to any person knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that such person—(4) has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution;

But can a determination by the Social Security Department that someone cannot manage a checkbook amount to being “adjudicated as a mental defective”?  The article suggests that it is not limited to a “court” but includes a “commission,” which means faceless bureaucrats at the Social Security Department.

But the category also 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.

This action needs to be halted immediately. Without any showing that someone is dangerous, you cannot take away their constitutional rights. Not even Heller’s dicta about limitations for those who are “mentally ill” can include people who can’t manage their checkbooks. The Disability Rights community should be up in arms (no pun intended) about this outrageous stigmatization of those with mental illness.  This is shameful.