Congress blocks Obama-era rule denying guns to the mentally impaired

WASHINGTON — Congress on Wednesday sent President Trump legislation to block an Obama-era rule designed to keep guns out of the hands of certain mentally disabled people.

On a 57-43 vote, the Senate backed the resolution, just one of several early steps by the Republican-led Congress to undo regulations implemented by Barack Obama when he was president. The House had passed the measure earlier this year. The White House has signaled that Trump will sign the legislation.

The Obama rule would have prevented an estimated 75,000 people with mental disorders from being able to purchase a firearm. It was crafted as part of Obama’s effort to strengthen the federal system of background checks following the 2012 massacre of 20 young students and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.


Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old with a variety of impairments, including Asperger’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, shot and killed his mother at their home, then went to the school, where he killed the students, adults, and himself.

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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 process designed to void regulations that Congress takes issue with.

With a Republican ally in the White House, the GOP has moved aggressively to rescind some of the Obama administration’s final regulations on the environment, financial reporting, and guns. Under an expedited process established through the Congressional Review Act, a regulation is made invalid when a simple majority of both chambers passes a joint resolution of disapproval and the president signs it.

Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, spearheaded the repeal effort and said the regulation unfairly stigmatizes the disabled and infringes on their constitutional right to bear arms. He said the mental disorders covered by 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.

‘‘If a specific individual is likely to be violent due to the nature of their mental illness, then the government should have to prove it,’’ Grassley said.

Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, said he didn’t know how he could explain to his constituents 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 asked.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon argued that anyone treated unfairly can appeal, and are likely to win if they’re not a danger to themselves or others. But Grassley said federal law requires a formal hearing and judgment before depriving someone of owning a firearm due to mental illness.


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 people with mental disabilities, ‘‘a vast and diverse group of citizens, are violent.’’ More than a dozen advocacy groups for the disabled also opposed the regulation.

The NAACP, the US Conference of Mayors, and the National League of Cities supported the Social Security Administration’s efforts.

‘‘This heartless resolution puts the most vulnerable Americans at risk,’’ said 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.’’