An amazing thing happened last week — Congress overturned an Obama administration rule to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental problems.
The reversal was not as amazing as was who applauded it. When the NRA and the ACLU both are cheering, something odd is happening.
Some corners of the press played the story as Congress' giving gun rights to crazy people. That was an oversimplification.
Obama had requested the rule in the wake of the 2012 slaughter of 20 schoolchildren and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., at the hands of a young man with mental problems.
Because Obama couldn't get any gun control measures through Congress, even those demanded by a majority of Americans, he made an end run around the legislative branch.
In 2016, the Social Security Administration announced it would start reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System people receiving benefits based on “mental impairment,” but only if a third party was handling their benefits. The rule was expected to affect about 75,000 people.
Those prohibited from buying firearms were to be notified, and there was a provision for them to appeal the prohibition.
At that time, the NRA went bonkers. That was predictable. So was a challenge from the ACLU, because a right — gun ownership — was being diminished.
The ACLU, in a statement to me, said the new rule had advanced “the harmful stereotype that people with mental disabilities, a vast and diverse group of citizens, are violent.”
There are no data, the ACLU said, connecting the need of a third-party payee with gun violence.
What was surprising to me was opposition to the rule from anti-gun groups, including CeaseFire PA. I asked executive director Shira Goodman how it felt to be on the same side as the NRA, her powerful nemesis.
After a hearty laugh, she said she didn't see it that way. What she did see, she said, “were the concerns among the mental health community” that people suffering with mental illness would be stigmatized.
Normally, anti-gun zealots try to stigmatize gun owners, at least informally. Now, being denied access to a gun — which no one would know about — is a stigma?
“The mentally ill commit a very small portion of the violent crime and are more likely to be victims of violence,” Goodman said. Almost two-thirds of American gun deaths are suicides.
“If the goal is to prevent gun violence, using mental illness as a default doesn't accomplish that,” Goodman said.
It’s more than just stigma, I’m told by gun law expert Jon Mirowitz.
The new rules lacked due process, he said, an issue the ACLU also had raised.
“Just because someone is called a nut doesn't mean they are dangerous to themselves or anyone else,” he said.
Someone can exhibit mental problems because of prescription drugs, Mirowitz noted, but is perfectly fine once the drug treatment stops. Other critics of the rule said eating disorders could get someone on the prohibited list.
Even if the Social Security rule is revoked — the reversal requires President Trump’s signature — there remains a federal requirement that people who have been involuntarily committed for mental treatment at a hospital must be added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check list. That would bar them from buying a gun.
Here we have rights in conflict — the right to buy a gun balanced against society's right to protect itself from potential, even if not provable, harm.
For decades we have been told the gun is the shame of America, a public-health issue. If that’s true, we should do whatever we can to keep it out of possibly dangerous hands. As to due process, those to be added to the list should have been allowed to appeal before they were listed.
A still-traumatized Newtown is represented by Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who told the Associated Press, “If you can't manage your own finances, how can we expect that you’re going to be a responsible steward of a dangerous, lethal firearm?”
On this issue, I’m a gun-grabber. If a person’s mental state prevents him from holding a job in most cases, it should also prevent him from holding a gun.