The head of the National Rifle Association’s political and lobbying arm incorrectly described a repealed Social Security Administration reporting requirement for gun background checks as targeting senior citizens “who asked for help handling their finances.”
The rule, which had been finalized in December 2016, was revoked by a joint resolution that President Donald Trump signed into law in February. It would have required the SSA to report certain mentally disabled beneficiaries to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, a federal database used to conduct gun background checks.
Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, said that Trump opposed the rule because “you can’t arbitrarily deny a senior citizen their Second Amendment rights based on no finding of dangerousness.” However, the rule didn’t single out seniors. It would have covered 18- to 65-year-olds receiving disability benefits — not retirement payments — due to a diagnosed mental condition.
Cox then went even further, falsely claiming that the rule’s “definition of a mental disorder was someone who asked for help handling their finances.” In fact, the SSA rule said that in order to be reported, individuals had to meet five criteria, including having a severe mental disability and having a representative assigned to handle their benefit payments.
The NRA-ILA didn’t respond to our request for comment.
Cox made his remarks on “Fox News Sunday” after Chris Wallace, the show’s host, challenged Cox’s claim that the NRA “has worked to include every mental health record, every court adjudication, every criminal record to make sure that people don’t fall through the cracks” during gun background checks.
Cox, Oct. 8: Sure, the National Rifle Association has worked to include every mental health record, every court adjudication, every criminal record to make sure that people don’t fall through the cracks. The National Rifle Association —
Wallace: That’s not — that’s not true, sir.
Cox: That’s absolutely true, Chris.
Wallace: No, it isn’t. Forgive me — in February, President Trump signed a measure that said that the Social Security Administration no longer has to provide information on mental disorders to the national background criminal check and the NRA supported that.
Cox: That is a complete misrepresentation of our position, a complete misrepresentation of what President Trump did. What he said is you can’t arbitrarily deny a senior citizen their Second Amendment rights based on no finding of dangerousness. The only finding was that they asked somebody to help them manage their financial affairs.
If you think that somebody needing help with a checkbook should eliminate them from exercising their Second Amendment, then you under —
Wallace: Mental disorders — now, I agree, it wasn’t everybody. It was some people with mental disorders and you backed that.
Cox: Their definition of a mental disorder was someone who asked for help handling their finances. That is not a prohibitive category, Chris, and it shouldn’t be a prohibitive category.
Wallace is right. As we wrote in an Ask FactCheck item on Oct. 6, Trump signed H.J.Res. 40 into law. That law blocked the SSA from having to comply with the rule, and the NRA applauded the president for doing so.
It’s Cox who inaccurately described those who would have been affected by the rule and why they would have been reported to the NICS database.
Here’s a recap of how the NICS database works and what the SSA rule would have accomplished:
Under federal law, individuals “committed to any mental institution” or “adjudicated as a mental defective” by a court, board, commission or other lawful authority are prohibited from purchasing or possessing a gun.
Adjudicated as a mental defective means people who — “as a result of marked subnormal intelligence, mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease” — lack the mental capacity to manage their own affairs, or are a danger to themselves or someone else. It also includes people found insane by a court in a criminal case, or found incompetent to stand trial, or not guilty by reason of lack of mental responsibility.
States can report those individuals to the NICS database used by federally licensed firearms dealers to screen for prohibited gun buyers. As of Dec. 31, 2016, there were more than 4.6 million active records in the NICS database for people with “adjudicated mental health” issues, according to FBI data.
When a customer applies to buy a gun from a federally licensed firearms dealer, the seller initiates the required background check by phone or online. NICS then runs the would-be gun buyer’s name and other identifying information against several nationally held databases to determine if the applicant is legally permitted to buy a gun.
In addition to mental health records, those databases contain criminal records, court records (such as warrants and protection orders), as well as immigration and naturalization records if the applicant is not a U.S. citizen.
The dealer can complete the sale if there is no match for the applicant in the system. But if there is a match, the gun purchase can be delayed for up to three business days while examiners review the case and determine if the person is indeed prohibited from purchasing a weapon.
The SSA’s final rule was created to comply with the reporting requirements mandated by the NICS Improvement Amendment Act of 2007, which was signed into law in January 2008 by President George W. Bush. The law required federal agencies to report individuals prohibited from acquiring guns to the NICS.
After the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Barack Obama issued a presidential memorandum advising the Justice Department to make sure that federal agencies were complying with the 2008 law by reporting relevant records to the national background check system.
The Obama administration estimated that the SSA reporting requirement would cover “approximately 75,000 people each year who have a documented mental health issue, receive disability benefits, and are unable to manage those benefits because of their mental impairment, or who have been found by a state or federal court to be legally incompetent.”
In addition to providing retirement benefits, the SSA also has a Social Security Disability Insurance program that provides benefits to disabled or blind people between the ages of 18 and 65.
But Trump blocked the rule before SSA had to comply with its requirements this December. (The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to disapprove rules up to 60 days after they were issued.)
As of December 2015, more than 3.5 million people were receiving benefits because of a mental disorder, according to Social Security’s annual report on the disability insurance program. Not all of those applicants would have been reported to NICS for inclusion in its database, though. Only those who met specific criteria would be affected.
SSA: As we indicate in section 421.110(b) of our rules, the beneficiaries whose names we would submit to the NICS must meet five well-defined criteria. The criteria are that the individual must have: (1) Filed a claim based on disability; (2) been determined by us to be disabled based on a finding at step three of our sequential evaluation process that the individual’s impairment(s) meets or medically equals the requirements of one of the Mental Disorders Listings; (3) a primary diagnosis code in our records that is based on a mental impairment; (4) attained age 18, but have not yet attained full retirement age; and (5) benefit payments made through a representative payee because we have found him or her incapable of managing benefit payments.
The agency said it wouldn’t report anyone who didn’t meet all five criteria. That means, contrary to what Cox said, no one would be reported for “needing help with a checkbook,” which isn’t the SSA’s definition of a qualifying mental disorder.
“For an impairment to meet or medically equal a listing, an individual’s symptoms must establish that he or she has a medically determinable mental impairment,” the rule said.
“The impairment must be established by medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings, not only by the claimant’s statement of symptoms alone. Specific signs or symptoms of a mental impairment combined with an alleged difficulty in managing money, alone, will not meet or equal one of the mental disorders listings. The claimant’s mental impairment must also result in limitations in the claimant’s ability to function to the degree required by the listing criteria.”
The agency’s list of qualifying mental impairments for disability benefits contains 11 categories of disorders, including schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders, as well as personality and impulse-control disorders, and trauma and stressor-related disorders.
In almost all cases, an applicant’s disorder has to cause an “extreme limitation of one, or marked limitation of two” of their ability to “understand, remember, or apply information; interact with others; concentrate, persist or maintain pace; and adapt or manage oneself.”
That’s far from simply defining a mental disorder as “someone who asked for help handling their finances,” as Cox claimed.