Congress on Feb. 15 sent President Donald Trump legislation blocking an Obama-era rule designed to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill 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.
The Obama rule would have prevented an estimated 75,000 mentally ill people 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. He used his mother’s guns in the attack.
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 the National Rifle Association and advocacy groups for the disabled, opposed the regulation and encouraged Congress to undertake a rarely successful parliamentary tool 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.
The House also voted to repeal three Labor Department regulations, including a rule that established when states could require drug testing for certain laid-off workers seeking unemployment insurance. Critics seeking the repeal said the department crafted the regulation so narrowly that it undermined congressional intent to give states more leeway to use drug testing in their unemployment insurance programs.
On the gun rule, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, spearheaded the repeal effort, saying 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.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he didn’t know how he could explain to his constituents, including those in Newtown, 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.
Gun rights groups weren’t the only organizations upset about the Obama administration’s regulation. The American Civil Liberties Union criticized it, too. The ACLU said the rule advanced a harmful stereotype that mentally ill people, “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.
“This heartless resolution puts the most vulnerable Americans at risk,” countered Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “Make no mistake, this vote was really about deepening the gun industry’s customer pool, at the expense of those in danger of hurting themselves or others.”
On the labor rule, Mississippi, Wisconsin and Texas are among the states seeking more flexibility in using drug tests in their unemployment insurance programs. Republicans complained that the Obama administration regulation undercut that flexibility — and congressional intent.
“I am pretty certain that the people who I am privileged to represent would be very upset if they thought somebody was receiving unemployment compensation while they were on drugs, because they think that is going to make it pretty hard for that person to ever get back into the workforce, and they want to be able to identify that,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
Democrats argued that Republicans were simply enabling states to intimidate people from seeking unemployment benefits.
“The legislation that we are debating today has nothing to do with fighting drug abuse,” said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass. “It’s about allowing states to put one more time-consuming, humiliating obstacle in the way of Americans who work hard, and were laid off from their jobs and need unemployment insurance to pay the bills while they look for new jobs.”