Fact Check

Did Congress Legalize Gun Purchases for People With Mental Impairments?

More accurately, Congress passed the repeal of an Obama-era measure that would have made it easier to enforce existing restrictions on gun sales.

Published Feb 17, 2017

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Congress passed a law that makes it legal for mentally impaired persons to purchase guns.
What's True

Congress passed a law repealing a measure that was originally intended to make it easier to prohibit the sale of firearms to people deemed “mentally defective” by requiring the Social Security Administration to provide disability benefit information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

What's False

The repeal does not change any actual firearm regulations; there have been (and still are) laws on the books that prohibit the sale of guns to some groups of people based on mental illness.

On 15 February 2017, the United States Senate backed a joint resolution already passed by the House of Representatives that aimed to block an Obama administration rule that sought to limit the sale of guns to some groups of mentally disabled individuals:

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.

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 Trump will sign the legislation.

This rule, finalized on 19 December 2016 in the final days of the Obama presidency, used the implementation of the National Instant Criminal Background Check Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 to require the Social Security Administration to report to the Attorney General individuals receiving certain kinds of Social Security mental health disability benefits so that this information could be used in firearm background checks:

These final rules implement provisions of the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 (NIAA) that require Federal agencies to provide relevant records to the Attorney General for inclusion in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Under these final rules, we will identify, on a prospective basis, individuals who receive Disability Insurance benefits under title II of the Social Security Act (Act) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments under title XVI of the Act and who also meet certain other criteria, including an award of benefits based on a finding that the individual's mental impairment meets or medically equals the requirements of section 12.00 of the Listing of Impairments (Listings) and receipt of benefits through a representative payee.

We will provide pertinent information about these individuals to the Attorney General on not less than a quarterly basis. As required by the NIAA, at the commencement of the adjudication process we will also notify individuals, both orally and in writing, of their possible Federal prohibition on possessing or receiving firearms, the consequences of such prohibition, the criminal penalties for violating the Gun Control Act, and the availability of relief from the prohibition on the receipt or possession of firearms imposed by Federal law.

Technically speaking, however, it was (and remains to this day) already illegal to sell guns to anyone "who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution" per Title 18 section 922(g) of the United States Code. Adjudicated as mental defective", the Obama administration argued, is further clarified in an Alcohol, Tobacco Products and Firearms regulation (Title 27 U.S.C. section 478.11) to be:

(a) A determination by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority that a person, as a result of marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease:

(1) Is a danger to himself or to others; or

(2) Lacks the mental capacity to contract or manage his own affairs.

(b) The term shall include—

(1) A finding of insanity by a court in a criminal case; and

(2) Those persons found incompetent to stand trial or found not guilty by reason of lack of mental responsibility pursuant to articles 50a and 72b of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, 10 U.S.C. 850a, 876b.

Under the Obama rule, information from the Social Security Administration regarding mental disability benefits would be added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check database for use in firearm background checks.

The Obama rule, a response to the 2012 Sandy Hook Massacre, had been praised by gun control advocates, but opposed by gun rights groups, disability advocacy groups, and civil liberty groups.

This repeal used an obscure rule called Congressional Review Act, which can invalidate certain regulations passed by a previous administration when a simple majority of both chambers and a president's signature — a rule invoked many times early in Trump’s presidency to remove regulations passed by Obama. Enforcement of this Obama regulation would not have begun until 19 December 2017.


Freking, Kevin.    "Congress Blocks Rule Barring Mentally Impaired from Guns."     Associated Press.    16 February 2017.

Federal Register.    "Implementation of the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007."     19 December 2016.

Code of Federal Regulations.   "Title 18 - Crimes and Criminal Procedure, Part I - Crimes, Chapter 44 - Firearms, Sec. 922 - Unlawful Acts.”     Accessed 17 February 2017.

Code of Federal Regulations.   "Title 27 - Alcohol, Tobacco Products, and Firearms. Chapter II - Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Department of Justice. Subchapter B - Firearms and Ammunition. Part 478 - Commerce in Firearms and Ammunition. Subpart B - Definition.”     Accessed 17 February 2017.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.

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