In an effort to impose tighter restrictions on firearm purchases, the Obama administration is pushing to impose background checks on some types of Social Security recipients. The move is mostly aimed at people who lack the mental capacity to manage their own affairs.
According to Alan Zarembo of the Los Angeles Times, the objective of the push is to bring the Social Security Administration in line with laws and regulations surrounding who gets reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The system, commonly known as NICS, is supposed to prevent gun sales to felons, drug addicts, illegal immigrants and other designated groups.
"There is no simple way to identify that group, but a strategy used by the Department of Veterans Affairs since the creation of the background check system is reporting anyone who has been declared incompetent to manage pension or disability payments and assigned a fiduciary," Zarembo wrote.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the language of federal gun laws defined people who are unable to manage their own affairs as those having "marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease." About 4.2 million adults receive Social Security benefits on a monthly basis that are managed by "representative payees."
"The move is part of a concerted effort by the Obama administration after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., to strengthen gun control, including by plugging holes in the background check system," Zarembo wrote.
However, a hodgepodge of gun rights activists, mental health experts and advocates for the disabled criticized the plan, contending to the Los Angeles Times that prohibiting gun ownership based on financial competence was the wrong approach. While critics acknowledged the ban could prohibit some people from owning guns if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others, some feared it would also apply to "numerous people who may just have a bad memory or difficulty balancing a checkbook."
"Someone can be incapable of managing their funds but not be dangerous, violent or unsafe," Yale psychiatrist Dr. Marc Rosen said. "They are very different determinations."
Zarembo talked with 30-year-old Steven Overman, a former Marine who lives in Virginia. Overman said that his case represented the flaws of using financial competence in judging gun safety.
"I didn't know the VA could take away your guns," Overman said.
According to Zarembo, Overman was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury that weakened his memory due to a roadside bombing in Iraq back in 2007. The VA deemed him 100 percent disabled and made his wife his fiduciary after declaring him incompetent in 2012.
"Upon being notified that he was being reported to the background check system, he gave his guns to his mother and began working with a lawyer to get them back," Zarembo wrote.
Overman, who used to hunt in Wisconsin, told Zarembo that he found solace in target shooting.
"It's relaxing to me," Overman quipped. "It's a break from day-to-day life. It calms me down."
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 introduced the background check system. It was named after White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was partially paralyzed in 1981 after being shot in the failed assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan.
"The law requires gun stores to run the names of prospective buyers through the computerized system before every sale," Zarembo wrote. "The system's databases contain more than 13 million records, which include the names of felons, immigrants in the U.S. illegally, fugitives, dishonorably discharged service members, drug addicts and domestic abusers."
The Los Angeles Times reported that about 177,000 veterans and survivors of veterans are in the background check system. The VA's criterion for "adjudicated as a mental defective," a term from decades-old laws, looks at whether somebody has been appointed a fiduciary.
"More than half of the names on the VA list are of people 80 or older, often suffering from dementia, a reasonable criterion for prohibiting gun ownership," Zarembo wrote. "But the category also includes anybody found by a 'court, board, commission or other lawful authority' to be lacking 'the mental capacity to contract or manage his own affairs' for a wide variety of reasons.
Zarembo reported that the VA had an option for its beneficiaries to get off the list since 2008 by filing an appeal. In addition, those in the system also had to demonstrate that they did not pose a threat to themselves or others.
"As of April, just nine of 298 appeals have been granted, according to data provided by the VA," Zarembo wrote. "Thirteen others were pending, and 44 were withdrawn after the VA overturned its determination of financial incompetence."
As for Overman, Zarembo reported that he decided to appeal. However, his name was taken down from the system after the VA lifted its incompetence ruling.
"I've never been suicidal," Overman said, admitting that he is irritable and antisocial but not dangerous. "To me, that solves nothing."
The controversial gun rights organization National Rifle Association told Stephen Gutowski of Washington Free Beacon that it will do its best to make sure the Obama administration's proposal does not go into force.
"The Obama administration will stop at nothing to strip as many people as possible of their Second Amendment rights," NRA executive director Chris Cox said. "The NRA will employ all means available to prevent the implementation of such a widespread injustice."
According to Gutowski, the move prompted a letter signed by 18 Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee to the acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration.
"It has come to our attention that the Social Security Administration is considering a policy to provide the names of Social Security beneficiaries who have a 'representative payee' to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) in an effort to limit 2nd Amendment rights," the letter stated. "This would be a dangerous overreach, and we urge you to abandon any such plan."
The letter contended that "old age or a disability doesn't make someone a threat to society."
"Having a representative payee should not be grounds to revoke constitutional rights," the letter said.
Based on the content of the letter, Social Security had until July 31 to respond to the congressional committee's concerns.