NRA and Republicans Find Unlikely Ally on Rollback of Gun Control Rule: Science

Human Rights

For once, science is on the side of the National Rifle Association and Donald Trump, according to prominent experts on mental health and violence.

A cohort of researchers and civil rights advocates say congressional Republicanswere right to roll back an Obama-era rule that would have barred certain mentally impaired recipients of social security benefits from owning guns.

The Obama rule “is fundamentally not a rational policy”, said Paul Appelbaum, a psychiatrist who directs the law, ethics and psychiatry division at Columbia University. “It’s not a rule that would be very likely to make us safer.”

The policy, finalized in the last weeks of the Obama administration, would have disqualified from gun ownership an estimated 75,000 people who have mental illnesses or disabilities and are assigned a representative to manage their social security benefits.

The people targeted by the rule “are not a particularly high-risk group for violent behavior”, Appelbaum said.

Advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for Mental Health, the American Association of People with Disabilities, and the federal government’s own advisory group, the National Council on Disability, opposed the measure, arguing that it deprived Americans of a constitutional right without due process.

“This is one of these times where the progressive politics du jour and the science – and, I think, the legal analysis – diverge,” said Jeffrey Swanson, a leading researcher on gun violence and mental health at Duke University.

“The NRA, on this thing, has found itself on the side of science,” he said.

The Senate approved the rollback with a 57-43 vote on Wednesday, and Trump is expected to sign it into law, prompting outraged statements from Democrats and gun control groups. The vote, like a previous one in the House, largely divided on partisan lines.

Senate Democrats, including minority leader Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein and Chris Murphy, dodged the details of the policy and assailed Republicans for a vote “to weaken the FBI’s background-check system for gun purchases”, as Feinstein put it. Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun control group founded by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, sent out an email to supporters: “For years, and after countless mass shootings, the U.S. Senate has done something remarkable: nothing. Today, the Senate finally acted. And what did they do? They made it easier for the dangerously mentally ill to buy guns.”

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow slammed the move on Twitter. The New York Times editorial board had taken a similar tone in two editorials, calling the rule a “sensible Obama gun policy” and opposing its rollback.

Leading gun violence researchers, in contrast, argued the Obama rule “wasn’t ever based on evidence” and called it “irrational”, “unfair” and “stigmatizing”.

“Gun control stirs up strong emotions, and there are a lot of people who will support anything that they perceive as reducing access to weapons by anyone,” Appelbaum said. “There are a lot of people on the other side, who will support anybody having access to weapons by any reasons whatsoever.”

In this case, “the rationality of the regulation itself is sort of lost in the furore”.

The new rule had been intended as one way for the federal government to respond to the very real problem of underreporting of mental health records to the nation’s background-check system for gun purchases.

Because Congress refused to pass updated gun control legislation, Obama was left to tinker around the edges of the existing law, and he directed federal agencies to do a better job reporting records of people with disqualifying mental illnesses to the background-check system.

The Social Security Administration would ultimately receive more than 90,000 comments on its proposed rule for doing this – meaning that more people wrote in to protest against the measure than the number of people who would ultimately be affected.

Supporters of the Obama rule said it focused on a relatively narrow group of extremely impaired people.

“This rule only impacts people who have been determined to be so severely disabled through a mental disorder that they can do no sort of gainful activity. They can’t hold a job even part time. Their mental disability is so severe that the Social Security Administration has determined that funds cannot be paid directly to them,” said Lindsay Nichols, a staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Researchers have long argued that only 4% of interpersonal violence in the US is attributable to mental illness alone, and that the focus on mental health as a way to address gun violence is a bogeyman. But Nichols said the focus on the risk of criminal violence alone missed the potential dangers of gun suicide, for which mental illness is a serious risk factor, as well as gun accidents.

“Gun ownership requires a certain amount of meticulousness, and even improperly storing guns one time can result in a tragedy,” she said.

Opponents said that, however well intentioned, the final version of the rule was “misguided”.

The process of assigning someone a social security payee to receive their checks is a purely bureaucratic process, said Phoebe Ball, a legislative affairs specialist at the National Council on Disability.

That designation “doesn’t meant they have a guardian, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re unable to manage other types of resources”, Ball said. “It simply doesn’t meet the due process requirements that one would want to see in place before you would remove an individual’s constitutional right.”

Ball conceded that some of the people targeted by the new rule might be people “we wouldn’t want owning a weapon”. But the rule would also sweep in other people whose gun ownership would not be a concern, like “someone who is in a family where hunting is an important part of their tradition, who has never expressed a dangerous or antisocial thought in their life, and they go hunting with their grandpa, and this rule would prohibit them from doing that”, she said.

Advocacy groups also repeatedly raised the lack of evidence that the group being targeted was actually a threat.

“There is no data to support a connection between the need for a representative payee to manage one’s social security disability benefits and a propensity toward gun violence,” the ACLU argued in a letter supporting the rollback of the rule.

The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law said the rule “creates a false sense that meaningful action has been taken to address gun violence, and detracts from potential prevention efforts targeting actual risks”.

An NRA spokeswoman, Jennifer Baker, wrote in an email that the group was not surprised to find itself on the same side as the ACLU, since “the NRA is in fact the nation’s oldest civil rights organization”.

wanson, a mental health expert who has conducted groundbreaking research on the impact of different gun violence prevention laws, criticized the Democrats’ fierce defense of the rule, arguing that it undermined the effort to build political consensus around gun control policies that actually have research evidence behind them.

“It’s a real step backwards in the messaging that I’ve been trying to do for years to say, ‘The vast majority of people with mental illnesses are never going to be violent, and to make that assumption is harmful,’” he said.

The NRA gleefully shared an op-ed Swanson wrote on the issue, as did the far-right news site Breitbart.

Being hailed by the NRA and Breitbart was a new experience for him, Swanson said, and somewhat disconcerting.

But, he said, what it meant to have “integrity as researchers” was to “take a stand for risk-based, fair policies”.

“Politics is politics, and sometimes you have to take the position that your team is taking, but that’s not my job.”

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