UPDATE: This article originally fact-checked ABC late night host Jimmy Kimmel’s claim that President Donald Trump made it easier for mentally ill Americans to purchase guns. It is being re-upped in response to similar claims that have surfaced on Twitter in light of reports that the perpetrator of Wednesday’s high school shooting in Florida had a history of mental illness. The claim, while technically true, glosses over key details of a considerably more nuanced policy change. The policy change would not likely have applied to the suspected shooter in Florida.
ABC late night host Jimmy Kimmel claimed that President Donald Trump “signed a bill that made it easier for people with severe mental illness to buy guns legally” during a Monday segment.
Kimmel’s claim was part of a longer monologue arguing for greater gun control measures in the wake of a Las Vegas mass shooting that left nearly 60 dead and over 500 wounded.
Trump did scrap an Obama-era regulation concerning mental illness reporting for gun background checks. Given the narrow scope of application for this regulation, however, Trump’s legislative move did not effectively prevent most mentally ill Americans from being barred from legally purchasing firearms.
The “bill” that Kimmel referred to in his monologue was House Joint Resolution (H.J.) 40, signed into law by Trump on February 28. The legislative move “disapprove[d]” of – removed – a rule finalized by the Social Security Administration (SSA) in December 2016 under then President Barack Obama. The rule, although it never went into full effect, was intended to “reduce gun violence” by improving “reporting to the background check system” in place for firearm purchasers.
The new rule required the SSA to report a list of Americans with mental impairment to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Should any of these Americans then seek to purchase a firearm, their mental condition would appear on legally mandated background checks and block the transaction. Many states already report residents’ mental health records to NICS.
Under the SSA’s now-scrapped rule, individuals had to meet a few criteria before the SSA reported them to the NICS as someone mentally unfit to purchase a gun.
Under the rule, a person first had to file a disability claim with SSA for Social Security welfare benefits citing mental impairment. SSA then had to confirm that that claimant’s “impairment(s) meets or medically equals” requirements of the SSA’s Mental Disorder Listing Of Impairments (or the ‘blue book’). Claimants, finally, must be so “incapable of managing benefit payments” that they receive their Social Security benefit payments through a “representative payee.”
If and only if these criteria were met would a person’s name have been forwarded by SSA to NICS. These are not easy criteria to meet.
The SSA blue book’s requirements for qualifying mental illnesses, for instance, usually include provisions relating to an inability to function in “normal work and social conditions.” Social Security disability benefits are meant to serve as an income supplement for Americans who cannot work either enough or at all; qualifications are purposely set to weed out potentially fraudulent claims for free government welfare.
SSA claims examiners evaluate the notes of claimants’ mental health professionals in addition to questionnaires that are sent to claimants’ acquaintances. This scrutinized evaluation even has been known to insufficiently consider the cyclical nature of many mental ailments and in turn deny otherwise deserving and needy claimants.
On top of that, the Social Security beneficiaries whose names would be forwarded by SSA to NICS would have also required the services of a “representative payee” – not only must qualifying people be too mentally impaired to be able to fully work, they must also be too mentally impaired to fully manage and make use of benefit checks on their own.
Kimmel’s claim that Trump made it “easier” for people with “severe mental illness” to legally purchase guns is true. By removing this SSA rule, some Americans on Social Security disability who would not have passed gun background tests after December 2017, when the rule was slated to go into full effect, now could pass.
Data on Social Security beneficiaries and mental illness in America, however, contextualize just how few people for whom it became “easier” to legally purchase guns. A report by the SSA identified 81,000 Social Security beneficiaries in fiscal year 2015 who met the hurdles for their names to be forwarded to NICS.
On the other hand, the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI) and National Institutes Of Health (NIH) estimate that there around 10 million U.S. adults suffer from “serious mental illness” each year.
The Obama Administration SSA rule thus only accounted for less than one percent of the millions of Americans with serious mental illness from legally purchasing firearms.
This is not to suggest that all people with severe mental illness are dangerous candidates for gun ownership. The nature of mental ailments vary, and under SSA blue book guidelines, even people with eating disorders and other mental issues with dubious connections to increased tendencies of violence could have had their names forwarded to NICS under the rule.
Studies actually suggest mentally ill people are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of gun violence. Numerous mental health and activist organizations have advanced this and other arguments against the Obama Administration’s SSA rule.
Trump’s scrapping of the SSA rule, moreover, does not erode federal restrictions on people with severe mental illness from purchasing firearms. The Gun Control Act of 1968, as amended by the Brady Act of 1993, prohibits people “adjudicated [deemed] as ‘mental defective'” from purchasing a firearm.
Kimmel claimed that Trump “made it easier for people with severe mental illness to buy guns legally.” Trump did scrap a rule that required SSA to report Social Security beneficiaries with severe mental illness, but the narrow scale of its application – i.e. Americans deemed sufficiently mentally ill to qualify for welfare benefits that they cannot even directly receive – towards its goal of keeping guns out of the hands of Americans with mental illness does not support Kimmel’s claim. Trump’s move did not significantly alter the capability for Americans with “severe mental illness” from legally purchasing a gun.
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