House Votes Social Security Does Not Need to Report Mental Illness to NICS

In a 235 to 180 vote, the House of Representatives has struck down an Obama-administration rule requiring the Social Security Administration to report people receiving benefits for a mental disability to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.  The Senate has not yet taken up the measure, so it remains to be seen if the bill will be sent to the president for a signature.

The reaction on the left has been varying degrees of shock and dismay.  Take the reaction of The Young Turks as an example.  They correctly point out that this new rule was in the works since the immediate days after the Newtown shooting, so it’s not something that Obama just forced through in the last minutes of his time in office.

One thing that surprised me was the comment by Grace Baldridge of The Young Turks that since the total number of people who are likely to be effected is some 75,000, the opposition to the rule is petty.  I’ve said to people many times that rights aren’t based on numbers, and while I have many disagreements with Ayn Rand, I do appreciate her statement that “the smallest minority on earth is the individual.  Those who deny individual rights, cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.”

But let’s take the idea that if the group is small enough, standing up for their rights is “petty.”  Where do we draw the line in terms of numbers?  The number of Americans who identify as transgender is estimated to be some 700,000, and that number is sufficiently large that opposition to the so-called bathroom bill in North Carolina was fierce, even though if totals in that state are proportional, only some 21,000 residents would be affected on a regular basis.  Expanding to LGBT people altogether brings the number up to some eight million, 3.5 percent of the population.  And The Young Turks commentators speak out regularly—and justifiably—in favor of equal rights for LGBT Americans.

Basing rights on numbers will ultimately mean that only majorities have rights.  But what about the mental status of the people involved?  Are they, as many advocates of gun control have said, dangerously mentally ill?  The Social Security Administration lists multiple conditions that qualify for disability benefits.  Some, like schizophrenia or autism spectrum disorder (the condition of the Newtown shooter) raise anxiety among advocates of gun control—also a potential qualification for benefits, by the way—others, such as language or eating disorders are not noted for their violence or hallucinations.  The evidence suggests that people with mental illness are not particularly more violent than the general population.  In fact, they are more likely to be the victims of violence, rather than the perpetrators.

Another concern is on the subject of due process.  An administrative decision within a federal agency is not the same thing as a court ruling.

As the American Civil Liberties Union—no supporters of gun rights—put it, “The rule includes no meaningful due process protections prior to the SSA’s transmittal of names to the NICS database. The determination by SSA line staff that a beneficiary needs a representative payee to manage their money benefit is simply not an “adjudication” in any ordinary meaning of the word.”  Now there is a procedure for appealing a decision on being denied gun rights as a result of a mental disability determination from the SSA, but it’s a bad principle to let the government make a declaration that citizens must appeal, rather than insisting on the presumption of innocence and sanity until proved otherwise.

Do I want the dangerously mentally ill in this country to be armed?  No.  But I do want the government to have to work to prove that a given person is dangerously mentally ill, and thus I look forward to seeing this bill pass the Senate and go on to be signed by the president.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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