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About Mental Health

The Senate on Wednesday voted to block a rule that would have prevented an estimated 75,000 people with mental impairments from purchasing firearms, a move criticized by lawmakers on the left but supported by gun rights and mental health advocates.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 that left 20 people, mostly children, dead, former President Barack Obama signed an executive order requiring the Social Security Administration (SSA) to report beneficiaries with certain mental disorders to the national firearm background system.

The vote largely split down party lines, with Republicans and a handful of Democrats voting to undo the law. The finally tally was 57-43, and President Donald Trump is expected to sign the law.

But it wasn’t just Republicans and the National Rifle Association (NRA) that opposed Obama’s gun reform measure. Mental health advocates also voiced concerns about the potential stigmatization of mentally ill populations as exceptionally dangerous or violent.

Helena Berger, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, told ATTN: that the gun law “has made very strange bedfellows.”

“Everybody has their own agenda here, and it just turns out that we happen to be on the same side of this issue — but probably for different reasons,” Berger said. “The disability community all along was very careful in our messaging and wording in our position because we didn’t want to get into this gun control issue. It really is about the civil rights and constitutional rights of people with psychiatric disabilities.”

In a letter published in The Federal Register in December, SSA responded to criticism of the law, including concerns about it would determine which beneficiaries met the criteria for mental impairment. Only serious mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would qualify a beneficiary for inclusion in the national background check database, it wrote, adding:

“We are not attempting to imply a connection between mental illness and a propensity for violence, particularly gun violence. Rather, we are complying with our obligations under the NIAA, which require us to provide information from our records when an individual falls within one of the categories identified [under U.S. code].”

Though it is statistically rare for people with mental illness to commit acts of violence, including gun violence, there is something to be said about the relationship between suicides by firearm and mental health. Only 4 percent of violent crimes are committed by people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression, a 2014 study published in the journal Annals of Epidemiology found. In the United States, about 10 percent of the population displays signs of one or more of those conditions ever year, the study showed.

“What this [law] did was feed into the stereotype about people that have psychiatric disabilities as being more violent and dangerous,” Berger said. “There’s really evidence out there to prove that.”

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