Guns and Mental Disability

Black silhouette of a pistol

I don’t think it should be easy for people with mental illness to get a gun. But then I don’t think it should be easy for anyone to get a gun.

When I first heard that President Obama’s new initiative on gun control would include measures to prevent people with “mental illness” from getting guns, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I know that statistics on actual shootings don’t justify focusing on mental illness. On the other hand, on an individual level, I find it hard not to think that that it might be much better if someone with mental illness couldn’t buy a gun. If nothing else, it might cut down on gun suicides. Or so the reasoning goes, I guess.

Then I saw some of the details and was reminded just how bad well-intentioned policy can be. The plan would link gun buying background checks with records of people on Social Security who have “representative payees.”

Representative payees, (referred to as “rep. payees”), are people who are given the legal authority and task of managing the finances of someone deemed incapable of handling their own money. This can include people with mental illness, but also people with intellectual disabilities, autism, or traumatic brain injury. A rep. payee will receive a person’s Social Security check, and disburse the money to pay the person’s bills. If done right, and in the right situations, it can be a very helpful service.

Not for nothing, but given peoples’ weird ideas about these conditions, rep. payees can also easily be misapplied to people who probably don’t really need it … people who would probably manage their money just fine, with a bit of training and some informal advice.

Either way, justified or not, the cognitive ability to understand and manage personal finances is a ridiculously imprecise marker for figuring out who shouldn’t be allowed to own a gun. Choosing that mechanism really seems like an idea thought up by a policy wonk who knows how data systems and bureaucracy works, but knows nothing about mental illness or other cognitive disabilities.

If I had it my way, buying and owning a gun would be at least as complex and demanding a process as owning and driving a car. You should have to train for it, pass a test, fill out a bunch of paperwork, maintain insurance, buy renewals, and periodically do all or most of it over again. And as with cognitive impairment and driving, any restrictions should be very individually determined, and based on actual risks, not prejudice.

But if that’s not going to happen, imposing gun restrictions on people with rep. payees is more than just an incremental measure. It’s bureaucratically sloppy, and conceptually it threatens to turn informal stigma against mentally ill and cognitively impaired people into official policy. That’s a terrible idea … ineffective on guns, and possibly very effective in making discrimination much worse for mentally ill and cognitively impaired people overall.

As usual, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network explains the issue with crystal clarity.

ASAN Opposes Proposal to Link Gun Purchases to SSA Rep Payee Database
Autistic Self Advocacy Network - January 5, 2016