Congress on Wednesday sent President Donald Trump legislation blocking an Obama-era rule designed to keep guns out of the hands of certain mentally disabled people, saying the classification included harmless people such as those with sleep apnea.
On a vote of 57-43, the Senate backed the resolution, just one of several early steps by the Republican-led Congress to undo regulations implemented by former President Barack Obama. The House had passed the measure earlier this year. The White House has signaled that President Trump will sign the legislation.
The Obama rule would have prevented an estimated 75,000 people with mental disorders from being able to purchase a firearm. It was crafted as part of Obama’s efforts to strengthen the federal background check system in the wake of the 2012 massacre of 20 young students and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old man with a variety of impairments — including Asperger’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder — shot and killed his mother at their home, then went to school where he killed the students, adults and himself.
The Obama administration rule required the Social Security Administration to send in the names of beneficiaries with mental impairments who also have a third party manage their benefits.
But lawmakers, with the backing of advocacy groups for the disabled and the National Rifle Association, opposed the regulation. They undertook a rarely successful process designed to void regulations that Congress takes issue with.
With a Republican ally in the White House, the GOP has moved aggressively on several fronts to rescind some of the Obama administration’s final regulations on the environment, financial reporting and now guns. Under an expedited process established through the Congressional Review Act, a regulation is made invalid when a simple majority of both chambers pass a joint resolution of disapproval and the president signs it.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, spearheaded the repeal effort and said that the regulation unfairly stigmatizes the disabled and infringes on their constitutional right to bear arms. He said that the mental disorders covered through the regulation are filled with “vague characteristics that do not fit into the federal mentally defective standard” prohibiting someone from buying or owning a gun.
Grassley cited eating and sleep disorders as examples of illnesses that could allow a beneficiary to be reported to the background check system if they also have a third party to manage their benefits.
“If a specific individual is likely to be violent due to the nature of their mental illness, then the government should have to prove it,” Grassley said.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he didn’t know how he could explain to his constituents that Congress was making it easier rather than harder for people with serious mental illness to have a gun.
“If you can’t manage your own financial affairs, how can we expect that you’re going to be a responsible steward of a dangerous, lethal firearm?” Murphy said.
The American Civil Liberties Union criticized Obama’s legislation, too. The ACLU said the rule advanced a harmful stereotype that people with mental disabilities, “a vast and diverse group of citizens, are violent.” More than a dozen advocacy groups for the disabled also opposed the Obama administration’s regulation.