Tag: mental health

The Social Security Administration Shouldn’t Be Deciding Who’s Too “Mentally Defective” to Own a Gun

Unable to legislate new restrictions on what kind of arms can be sold, the government has embarked on a long-term effort of adding an untold number of Americans to “no buy” lists—based on the unfounded conjecture that they pose a “danger” to others—and deprive them of a fundamental constitutional right. The Gun Control Act of 1968 and NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 requires that agencies with pertinent records on who is or is not “a mental defective” disclose those records to the attorney general so those people can be excluded from purchasing arms through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has proposed a new regulation that would create a process for transferring the records of those who seek a “representative payee” (legal proxy) under Social Security disability benefits programs to NICS, so that they may be considered a “mental defective” and thus lose their Second Amendment rights. The proposed SSA rule is arbitrary—there’s no evidence that someone who needs help with SSA paperwork can’t be trusted with a gun—and inconsistent with the regulatory and statutory scheme, not to mention blatantly unconstitutional.

Accordingly, for the first time ever, Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies, with the help of law professors Josh Blackman and Gregory Wallace, has filed a public comment objecting to the rule on 10 different grounds. No one disputes that the government has an interest in keeping guns out of the hands of those who could harm themselves or others, but depriving a constitutional right requires due process of law. Under existing law, the root requirement of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause is that an individual receive a hearing before she is deprived of a constitutional right by a federal agency, one where the government must justify its restriction.

Do Conservatives Only Oppose Big-Government Health Care Schemes When Proposed by Democrats?

Conservatives outright reject the idea that big-government gun-control schemes would reduce mass shootings like the recent murders committed at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. So why do so many conservatives seem to believe a big-government mental-health-care scheme, like the bill sponsored by psychologist and congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA), would be any more effective?

Murphy’s bill would reorganize and expand the federal government’s involvement in mental-health care. It would create a new Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It would create an Interagency Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee. It would encourage telepsychiatry–by subsidizing it. It would expand Medicare and Medicaid subsidies for mental-health goods and services. It would leverage federal grants to coerce control how states treat mental-health patients suspected of being a threat to others. It would do other things.

Conservatives have lauded the bill and demonized its opponents. In October, National Review editorialized basically that Murphy’s bill would manage mental-health treatment from Washington better than Washington has ever managed mental-health treatment before.  Last week, The Wall Street Journal editorialized that opponents, including some Republicans, “object to involuntary commitment for the mentally ill, despite overwhelming evidence of the risks to society and the sick.” The Journal neglected either to recognize that involuntary commitment is a dangerous power for the government to wield, one with both benefits and costs, or to offer evidence that the benefits to society and the sick of broader involuntary commitment would exceed those costs.

A Cosmetic Gun Law

Last night, the New York Senate passed far-reaching reforms to New York’s gun laws. The law should easily pass the Assembly and then be signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Almost assuredly, this law will save no lives and stop no mass shootings. In fact, it may make New Yorkers less safe. 

I invite you to read over the previsions of the law—expanding the definition of already-banned “assault” weapons, banning the sale of magazines that hold over seven rounds, a requirement that licenses be renewed every five years—and ask if there is a single would-be killer out there who would be hampered by such restrictions in a country where he is already surrounded by 300 million guns? It is simply unreasonable to think that any unstable person with plans for mass carnage will be stopped by only having seven rounds per magazine. The Virginia Tech shooter, after all, solved this “problem” by carrying a bag with 19 magazines.

And how could this law make New Yorkers less safe? First, the law will inevitably limit law-abiding citizens’ access to weapons, and those citizens may need those weapons to protect themselves or others from a crime. At minimum, this occurs 108,000 times per year, according to the federal government’s National Crime Victimization Survey, and it likely occurs far more than that (you can read more about defensive gun use in the Cato study Tough Targets).

Second, onerous gun restrictions tend to drive gun purchasers underground. Those black and illicit markets are further expanded by gun-control advocates’ attempts to shame and demonize those who own firearms and enjoy using them in a responsible manner (for example, the recent Gawker exposé publishing the names and addresses of gun owners in New York City, who were blatantly described as “a**holes,” as well as the Journal News publishing similar data for gun owners in Westchester and Rockland counties). Moreover, as J.D. Tuccille recently documented in Reason, evading gun restrictions is not just a national pastime, it is an international pastime. Tuccille writes that there are approximately 58,000 registered gun owners in New York City, but that the Justice Department estimates that there are about 2 million illegal guns in the city. 

Pushing more of the gun trade underground by passing onerous restrictions and creating bureaucratic labyrinths impairs our ability to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.   

Some aspects of the law, such as the requirement that mental health professionals report patients who they believe are likely to harm themselves or others, seem like an honest attempt to prevent dangerous people from having guns. However, the requirement violates the traditional rules of therapist/patient confidentiality, and unfortunately it will likely do more to dissuade people from seeking help out of fear that they may be disarmed by the state.  

Governor Cuomo’s statement—“Enough people have lost their lives. Let’s act”—shows that this law is more an example of the “something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done” tendency in politics rather than a carefully considered bill that offers workable solutions to the problem. In many ways, this is the biggest harm of these cosmetic gun laws: lawmakers can pat themselves on the back and incorrectly say, “we saved some lives today” and then move on to other tasks while having done nothing to solve the problem. 

Why the Rush, Governor Cuomo?

Legislation rushed through passage is invariably bad law. And the gun bill that emerged overnight from the New York State Legislature, on its first day back, will surely be no exception. Written in private by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders and completed late yesterday, “rank-and-file Senators had only a few minutes to read the legislation before voting on it,” the New York Times reports. “If there is an issue that fits the definition of necessity,” Cuomo intoned, “I believe it’s gun violence.” Really! So pressing are events that the normal three-day waiting period, so legislators could study the bill, had to be waived?

So what do we have? A bill that bans, as “assault weapons,” semiautomatic pistols and rifles with detachable magazines and “one military-style feature,” and semiautomatic shotguns with such a feature. And what is a “military-style feature”? We’ve seen this play before. New Yorkers who already have such guns can keep them, but they’ll have to be registered. Expect litigation on all of those points. Once again, it’s the law-abiding people this bill will affect, not those we have to worry about.

But if the gun part of the bill is problematic, the mental health part is even more so. Mental health professionals would be required “to report to local mental health officials when they believe that patients are likely to harm themselves or others,” the Times tells us, the failure of which would not be sanctioned if they acted “in good faith.” Here again, as with the guns, we imagine that all we need is more law to address what is doubtless the most difficult part of the problem. The implications for confidentiality and, more important still, for encouraging people to seek help, are deeply troubling.

Yet the most important measure that could be taken immediately—one that has proven to reduce deaths from random mass shootings—seems to be missing altogether from this bill, despite the fact that two-thirds of Americans support it. It is to have armed security officials at schools and other currently “gun-free zones.” This act is likely to have little effect on the real problem, however much it makes those who promoted and passed it feel good.