Seven weeks into Congress’ new session, little on the Republicans’ list of major goals has been accomplished. But right out of the box, members of the GOP majority made sure to get one thing done: Make it easier for people with severe mental illness to buy guns.
Talk about getting things backwards.
Under a policy based on a decade-old law and approved during the final days of the Obama White House, the Social Security Administration was to submit names of people who, because of a mental disorder, can no longer work, who receive disability payments and who cannot manage their financial affairs.
What could make more sense than requiring a federal agency, which has those names, to follow the law and send them to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System?
In fact, the Republican mantra has long been that instead of passing new gun control laws, the nation should enforce the ones on the books. And as Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said during a gun debate in 2013, “No one I know believes that a mentally ill person should be able to purchase a firearm.”
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But when they had the chance, Senate Republicans — joined by four Democrats and one independent who are up for re-election next year — saluted the NRA and voted to kill the Social Security policy. The House did the same earlier this month, and the legislation is awaiting President Trump’s signature.
For years, failure to submit the names of people who are banned from buying guns because of certain mental illnesses has been a major gap in the background-check system.
Finding the right way to separate the mentally ill from guns isn’t easy, and going too far can wrongly stigmatize everyone who suffers from mental illness. The overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent. Nor is mental illness a predictor of gun violence.
But it is also true that many of the young men responsible for some of the worst massacres in recent years have suffered from severe mental problems, including Seung Hui Cho, who killed 32 at Virginia Tech; Jared Loughner, killer of six at a Tucson shopping mall; and James Holmes, who killed 12 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
Certain types of mental illness are also closely associated with suicide, which accounts for six out of 10 firearm fatalities in America. Even if the Social Security policy would have done more to prevent suicide than mass murder, that’s certainly a worthwhile goal.
Joining the NRA in opposing the policy were disability and civil rights groups concerned the policy was too broad and would stereotype too many innocent people. Republican leaders latched onto that as an excuse for repeal.
In a perfect world, the rules could be more finely tuned. But in the real world, where mass murders still occur and where more than 20,000 people commit suicide with a gun every year, the definition of insanity is making guns more accessible to disturbed individuals.