In a move that could be in the running for the stupidest decision ever made by a group of people anywhere, House Republicans have voted in favour of allowing people who are certifiably insane to have access to guns. Lawmakers were debating whether or not to strike down a rule from the Obama administration that actively tried to prevent people with certain mental illnesses from having access to firearms. Citing a desire to increase gun ownership under President Trump, the House voted 235-180 in favour of getting rid of the rule.
Let’s go into more detail about the rule the Obama administration enacted. The rule impacted around 75,000 recipients of Social Security that had been diagnosed with having serious mental health conditions. This rule covered people who were considered as clinically unfit to manage their own lives, and included people who were diagnosed with extreme anxiety and/or schizophrenia.
Unsurprisingly the NRA were in favour of House Joint Resolution 40, but so were the ACLU which would imply that this story is more complicated that initially thought. The ACLU’s argument is that: “We oppose this rule because it advances and reinforces the harmful stereotype that people with mental disabilities, a vast and diverse group of citizens, are violent”. I understand this point of view, and when the ACLU said that people on the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) should still have access to guns I agreed. The reason was that it sets a dangerous precedent where the state can arbitrarily put your name on a list and restrict your civil liberties.
However on this I disagree with the ACLU. The rule the Obama administration introduced didn’t ban people with mental health conditions from buying guns, but automatically meant they had to have a background check. Also this is different to the (TSDB) debate because the list the government has is not arbitrary. The TDB debate relied on the integrity of a list that was produced by the FBI, without the need for any proof. The rule applying to the Social Security Administration was about a list of people who had been diagnosed by medical doctors as having a serious mental illness. I believe that this is, therefore, is slightly different.
In terms of propagating stereotypes about the disabled, I agree that there needs to be a concerted effort to combat these stereotypes, but stopping background checks for the gun purchases of people with schizophrenia doesn’t do that. The discussion becomes more nuanced when talking about outright bans for gun purchases, because the we need talk about civil rights in relation to rationality, state overreach and other abstract philosophical concepts. Forcing people who have severe anxiety to have a background check before buying an AR15 is not unreasonable, because presumably the only people who would be denied the right to buy a gun would be those who have a history of violent behaviour. I agree with the ACLU that empirical evidence shows that most people with severe mental illnesses are not violent, but the answer isn’t to let everyone have a gun.
Hopefully you’ll be convinced of my slightly more complicated position, but I also want to mention Republican hypocrisy. When talking about constitutional rights, Republicans often like to talk about ‘original intent’ which is a philosophical view of the US Constitution that privileges what the Founding Fathers would have originally intended. Even if we ignore the obvious epistemological problem of trying to know what the Founding Fathers would think of our modern world, it’s worth talking about who the Founding Fathers were.
The framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were products of the Enlightenment, and as such privileged reason above irrationality. I contend that if the Founding Fathers were asked whether or not to withhold the ability of someone who is insane, which is an extreme form of irrationality, their response would be to side with the Obama administration. The Republicans, who are so concern with ‘original intent’, would have to try and convince me that the Founding Fathers would support the unrestricted right of people who have difficulty ascertaining what is real in the world around them to buy guns. I would like to hear this argument.
The rule struck down by House Republicans is a monumental mistake for the reasons I outlined above. I genuinely cannot see how requiring people who have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness to have a background check when they try and buy a gun is a restriction of freedom. Indeed this rule only applies to people who receive federal funds, and a part of their application for these funds is the professional opinion of a doctor. Republicans have decided to reject the opinion of doctors in order to service the NRA, and although the ACLU also oppose this measure I believe they’re wrong. The Democrats should filibuster the shit out of this in the Senate.