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Senate Blocks Obama-Era Rule Tightening Checks On Mentally Ill Gun Buyers

Alex Wong
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By a 57-43 margin, the Republican-led Senate voted Wednesday to repeal an Obama-era regulation designed to block certain mentally ill people from purchasing firearms. The vote, which approves a House resolution passed earlier this month, now sends the measure to the White House for President Trump's signature.

President Trump, who campaigned as a defender of gun rights and a friend of the National Rifle Association, is widely expected to sign the measure.

The rule on the verge of rollback would have required the Social Security Administration to report the records of some mentally ill beneficiaries to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Those who have been deemed mentally incapable of managing their financial affairs — roughly 75,000 people — would have been affected by the rule, according to NPR's Susan Davis.

It was implemented by former President Obama after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, which saw 20 students and six teachers killed at an elementary school by 20-year-old Adam Lanza. The Hill reports that the rule was set to take effect in December.

Yet GOP lawmakers have argued that the regulation was needlessly heavy-handed, painting people with mental illnesses with too broad a brush and infringing on their constitutional rights. The Associated Press reports that Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a leading Republican critic of the rule, said it is filled with "vague characteristics that do not fit into the federal mentally defective standard" prohibiting someone from buying or owning a gun.

"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, according to the news service.

The NRA and the American Civil Liberties Union also opposed Obama's rule — the NRA for its restrictions on the Second Amendment, the ACLU for the possibility it would stereotype the mentally ill as violent.

So, seizing its long-awaited moment with a GOP president in the White House, Congress passed Wednesday's "Resolution of Disapproval" under the Congressional Review Act, a rarely used maneuver that gives lawmakers a means to overturn federal regulations put in place by the executive branch. The move allows the Senate to proceed with a simple majority, thus enabling GOP senators to avoid a filibuster by Democrats.

The House got that ball rolling two weeks ago; the Senate sent it the rest of the way to President Trump's desk.

Democrats, however, excoriated the legislation as irresponsible.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut where the Sandy Hook massacre occurred, delivered a fiery speech against the measure before Wednesday's vote, The Hill reports:

"The [Congressional Review Act] we have before us today will make it harder for the federal government to do what we have told them to do for decades, which is to put dangerous people and people who are seriously mentally ill on the list of people who are prohibited from buying a gun."

The AP notes that Murphy added: "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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.