With U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley

Q: Can you explain the Obama administration’s regulation that would have added certain Social Security recipients to the federal gun ban list?

A: Last year’s repeal of this flawed regulation is being used as a misleading talking point in the aftermath of the horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The repealed regulation has nothing to do with the alleged shooter or the tragic loss of innocent lives in Parkland, Fla. What’s more, the portrayal fuels a stereotype that stigmatizes people with disabilities as second-class citizens. Those who perpetuate this myth effectively are saying that Americans who need assistance with their Social Security finances ought to be considered deranged and dangerous to society. The regulation would have transmitted names of any person assigned a fiduciary by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). That’s the federal database operated by the FBI used to determine a person’s eligibility to purchase firearms.

After careful study, it became clear the SSA regulation abridged the Second Amendment right of certain Social Security beneficiaries, failed to pass constitutional muster and was unfair in a number of ways. First, the SSA regulation did not require a formal hearing before reporting people to NICS, thereby violating due process rights. Federal law makes clear that an “adjudication” is required before a firearms ban is incurred. The agency regulation failed in that regard because there can be no “adjudication” without a hearing.  Second, it did not require the SSA to find a person mentally ill before reporting the individual to the NICS. The agency regulation used a vague disorders list that included eating disorders and disorders that impact sleep to assign a person a representative payee. Then, once that assignment is made, the SSA would report people to the gun ban list, automatically taking away the right to purchase firearms. And third, the rule did not require the SSA to find a person dangerous to self or others before reporting an individual to the NICS. However, for an individual to remove his or her name from the gun ban list, they must prove they are not dangerous. So, on the one hand, the regulation did not require the government to prove someone is dangerous before reporting them to list. On the other hand, existing law requires anyone on the gun ban list to prove they are not dangerous to get their Second Amendment right restored. This double standard is unfair. The government should be held to the same standard as the people. 

In fact, a bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate voted to rescind this rule. Plus, a broad coalition representing dozens of civil rights and disability advocacy groups agree that the Obama-era rule unjustly maligned persons with disabilities. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was one of the lead organizations who spoke out against this regulation, stating:

“We oppose this [SSA] rule because it advances and reinforces the harmful stereotypes that people with mental disabilities, a vast and diverse group of citizens, are violent and should not own a gun. There is no data to support a connection between the need for a representative payee to manage one’s Social Security disability benefits and a propensity toward gun violence. The rule further demonstrates the damaging phenomenon of ‘spread,’ or the perception that a disabled individual with one area of impairment automatically has additional, negative and unrelated attributes.”

Serious times call for serious conversations. Conflating the Second Amendment right of law-abiding citizens with those who truly are dangerous will not solve gun violence in our communities. Importantly, even with the repeal of the SSA’s regulation, gun safety prohibitions are still in place. For example, federal law still prohibits those who are actually found to be dangerous or mentally ill from purchasing firearms. The same can be said for felons, those with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions, and people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. However, as we have seen, federal agencies need to do a better job, and be held accountable for not enforcing the laws that could prevent dangerous individuals from purchasing firearms. I have consistently fought to strengthen our nation’s mental health services and to limit access to firearms for those who seek to do us harm. 

Q: What measures do you support to address gun violence in America?

A:  Just a few years ago, I led an effort with Senator Ted Cruz to improve the national background check system, end trafficking of illegal firearms and beef up resources for gun-crime prosecutions, school safety and mental health. Specifically, my amendment would have provided more resources to states to provide mental health services for people in local courts and jails and to help veterans with mental health and substance abuse challenges. For example, it would have allowed Byrne and COPS grants to be used for mental health programs. The Grassley-Cruz amendment to the Safe Schools, Safe Communities Act of 2013 fell short of a 60-vote majority needed to advance. In December, I led a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee to weigh proposals aimed at improving background checks for gun buyers and to examine firearm accessories, including bump stocks. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is working to draft new rules to clarify the definition of a ‘machine gun’ that would ban the use of bump stocks. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I’ve committed to work with Senator Dianne Feinstein and Senator John Cornyn to identify comprehensive solutions that will curb gun violence in our communities. I also support the bipartisan STOP School Violence Act that would increase resources for local law enforcement, school personnel and students to improve school safety infrastructure, implement violence prevention programs and improve reporting systems for threats of school violence. Improving mental health screening and services, enforcing compliance of gun laws and maintaining updates to the federal background database are crucial to ending school violence. Through my congressional oversight responsibilities, I am working to hold the executive branch and law enforcement accountable for the faithful implementation of the nation’s gun laws including federal background checks to keep our streets and our schools safe. Following the tragic shootings in Sutherland Springs, Texas and Parkland, Fla., cracks in the reporting system and noncompliance with background checks are under renewed scrutiny. Public safety in our public squares, especially in the nation’s classrooms, is a paramount concern for every American that we cannot take for granted. The President has made school safety a top priority of his administration. Like every parent and grandparent in America, I want to see an end to senseless violence that rips apart the fabric of American life. I’m committed to finding solutions that protect the blessings of life and liberty, uphold the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens and keep guns from getting into the wrong hands.