No Guns for Pensioners?

Published July 20, 2015

NEWS:   President Obama is reportedly pushing to extend gun background checks to Social Security disability recipients.

Claim:   President Obama is planning to ban all Social Security recipients from owning guns.


WHAT'S TRUE:   The Obama administration is seeking to use Social Security Administration data about disability recipients to enforce existing gun purchase restrictions.

WHAT'S FALSE:   President Obama is planning to bar all Social Security recipients from owning guns.

Origins:   In a case reminiscent of a January 2009 piece of satire, July 2015 news reports indicated that the Obama administration was seeking tighter controls over firearm purchases by pushing to bar Social Security beneficiaries from owning guns if they lack the mental capacity to manage their own affairs.

The move is being tagged as part of an effort by the Obama administration to strengthen gun control after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, a plan that includes trying to plug holes in the firearms purchase background check system. The intent of the Social Security check is to bring the Social Security Administration in line with other laws that regulate who gets reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a database used to prevent gun sales to excluded classes such as felons, drug addicts, dishonorably discharged service members, fugitives, and illegal immigrants. (That is, the Obama administration isn't seeking to create new classes of persons excluded from gun ownership — those exclusions already exist, and the administration is only positing the use of Social Security Administration reporting as a method of enforcing them.)

Such a move could potentially affect millions of Social Security disability recipients whose payments are handled by others due to "marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease." Those persons would likely be identified through the reporting of anyone who has been declared incompetent to manage their own pension or disability payments and has been assigned a fiduciary as a result.

Opponents of the plan maintain that the implementation of such a background check system could unfairly exclude large numbers of people who pose no real danger to others from gun ownership:

Critics — including gun rights activists, mental health experts and advocates for the disabled — say that expanding the list of prohibited gun owners based on financial competence is wrongheaded.

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."

Rosen said some [people] 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.

The federal background check system was created in 1993 through the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (named after White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was severely wounded during the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan) and requires gun stores to check the names of prospective buyers through the system before every sale. The database holds over 13 million records, entered at the local, state, and federal level, but it has not always served its intended purpose due to inconsistencies in reporting and use — for example, when Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, it was later found that he had been declared mentally ill by a court and ordered to undergo treatment, but the law in effect at the time did not require that he be added to the database.

A similar system already in use by the VA for beneficiaries has drawn similar criticisms:

The VA reports names under a category in gun control regulations known as "adjudicated as a mental defective," terminology that derives from decades-old laws. Its only criterion is whether somebody has been appointed a fiduciary.

More than half of the names on the VA list are of people 80 or older, often suffering from dementia, a reasonable criterion for prohibiting gun ownership.

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.

The agency's efforts have been criticized by a variety of groups.

Social Security would generally report names under the same "mental defective" category. The agency is still figuring out how that definition should be applied.

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.

Since 2008, VA beneficiaries have been able to get off the list by filing an appeal and demonstrating that they pose no danger to themselves or others.

But as of April [2015], 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.

Although this news was reported in some quarters as an attempt to bar all Social Security recipients from gun ownership, what is apparently under discussion would pertain exclusively to the subset of Social Security disability recipients who have been deemed incompetent to handle their own financial affairs.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as back in 1994.