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Views My Own

Gun Control Shouldn't Mean Stigmatizing the Mentally Ill

An Obama administration rule stopping some disabled people from purchasing guns is not the path to reducing gun violence.
Sergio Flores/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I do not like guns. In fact, I absolutely despise them. I see no reason for civilians to have guns and would be very content if we considerably increased gun control in the United States. But gun control must be approached in the right way—limiting access to guns must be an across-the-board effort that applies to all segments of Americans. Put differently, we cannot—and should not—restrict access to guns (or any right) for certain groups based on bias and speculation.


On December 19, 2016, the Social Security Administration (SSA) issued final rules to implement provisions of the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 (NIAA), which require federal agencies to provide certain individuals' records to the attorney general for inclusion in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This rule, which was part of Barack Obama's late-term efforts to strengthen gun control, prohibited people with mental disabilities who receive Social Security benefits and have a selected representative to manage their finances from purchasing firearms.

This month, both the House and Senate have voted to repeal this rule, a move that most Republicans supported and most Democrats opposed. It is now headed to President Donald Trump for his signature, which he will presumably provide. Many supporters of gun control were outraged; the Brady campaign and center issued a strong statement challenging the reversal, asserting that Congress had voted to "Make American Dangerous Again."

Notably, however, the response has not been entirely along usual ideology lines. Indeed, some traditionally liberal and conservative groups have found themselves on the same side of the issue, making for unusual alliances.

The ACLU, for example, urged Congress to disapprove the SSA regulation, stating, "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."


Disability advocates and organizations have similarly found themselves on the same side as pro-gun groups. As Ari Ne'eman, CEO of, wrote for Vox, "While congressional Democrats have been admirable allies to the disability community on the vast majority of issues, when it comes to gun violence, both parties use people with mental illness as props—in ways that don't help public safety, and that put vulnerable people at risk. In this case, it was the Democrats that got the issue wrong."

As a disabled woman, I too have found myself in a very bizarre and unfamiliar place. I am liberal and typically an unwavering proponent of measures to restrict firearms purchases. I am also an advocate for disability rights. While I truly believe the United States desperately needs much stronger gun control laws, I also believe restrictions must be evidence-based rather than a result of bias. For instance, rules against domestic abusers buying firearms are based on well-established links between domestic violence and gun deaths. The Obama administration's rule barring certain people with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities from buying guns implies that, like abusers, they cannot be trusted with guns—an assumption that is false and perpetuates stigma toward a vulnerable group.

To understand the problems with this rule, we need to get into granular specifics. If fully implemented (compliance was not required until December 2017), this rule would have forbidden firearms purchases from people with mental disabilities who receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and who have been appointed a representative payee. Specifically, the rule mandated that SSA send to NICS the names of all SSDI and SSI beneficiaries who have a mental impairment and utilize a designated individual to assist with managing financial affairs.


First, while proponents of the rule assert that the rule applies to a very small and discrete group of people, it actually applies to people with a wide-range of disabilities. Indeed, SSA includes 11 categories under the umbrella of mental impairments: "neurocognitive disorders, schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders, depressive, bipolar and related disorders, intellectual disorder, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, somatic symptom and related disorders, personality and impulse-control disorders, autism spectrum disorder, neurodevelopmental disorders, eating disorders, and trauma- and stressor-related disorders." Thus, people with vastly different diagnoses and symptoms would be affected.

Second, this rule only applies to individuals who have been designated a representative payee—someone who helps the beneficiary manage his or her finances. A representative payee is a person (usually a family member or friend) or an organization chosen by SSA to receive benefits on behalf of a beneficiary. SSA appoints a representative payee if the agency determines the beneficiary has difficulties managing his or her own finances. Notably, SSA regulations explicitly state that representative payees may be appointed even if the individual with a disability is considered legally competent.

The rules restricting firearm purchases state the intent is to apply to those who lack mental capacity to manage their own affairs. This is inconsistent: Representative payees are appointed for individuals who may need additional assistance with managing their financial affairs, not all of their affairs. Many people with representative payees do not have guardians and are therefore legally able to manage their own lives. They can sign contracts, get married, consent to medical treatment, possess a driver's license, make end-of-life decisions, vote in elections, and determine where they live.


It should also be emphasized that just as being mentally or intellectually disabled does not make one incompetent; it also does not mean one is more likely to be dangerous. A large and growing body of research has found that the vast majority of people with psychiatric disabilities are not violent or suicidal. In fact, research has consistently revealed that people with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Moreover, no evidence exists that indicates that people with representative payees are more likely to engage in gun violence.

Equating psychiatric disabilities with gun violence is unjust and stigmatizing. For far too long the media has portrayed those with mental illness as dangerous, based on a few high-profile shootings rather than the realities of mental illness. These misconceptions result in isolation and discrimination.

As a someone who is very anti-gun, I understand the desire to limit access of firearm purchases. The tragedies that happened in Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, and Orlando should never have happened. Nor should the countless deaths from gun violence that we don't hear about. The truth is, we do need gun control, and Americans know this. Eighty-five percent of gun owners support universal background checks. Republican-led efforts to loosen gun regulations are based on the dangerous idea that everyone should be able to buy any gun they want at any time, a notion that can only lead to more tragedies. Gun control advocates are generally right to oppose this—but they should make sure they do not embrace bad policies based on stereotypes.

We cannot give up. We owe it to the countless number of people affected by gun violence to finally end this phenomenon. It's time we enact effective—and unbiased—gun control.

Robyn Powell is a proud disabled woman, attorney, researcher, and freelance writer.