President Donald Trump is weighing his options for executive action on gun control following a pair of mass shootings that killed more than 30 people, according to the White House.
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, actually did take executive action on gun control not long after a gunman slaughtered 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in late 2012. And one of Trump’s first actions as president was to undo an Obama regulation that would have blocked some people with mental impairments from buying guns.
The rule, which became effective just two days before Trump took office, required the Social Security Administration (SSA) to inform the FBI’s criminal background check system about disabled adults receiving benefits through a representative because a mental impairment limited their ability to manage finances.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has long followed a similar policy, which accounts for the bulk of mental incompetency referrals to the background check system from federal agencies, according to the Congressional Research Service. Most of the 4.6 million records prohibiting gun sales due to mental incompetency in the database as of 2016 came from state and local authorities.
The SSA finalized the rule at the end of 2016, a year in which Obama touted several gun control reforms he’d undertaken without help from Congress. “The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage, but they can’t hold America hostage,” Obama said on Twitter that year. “We can’t accept this carnage in our communities.”
Because Obama pursued the policy involving the SSA through regulation, however, Congress had an easy time overturning it once Trump assumed the White House. Thanks to a special legislative tool called the Congressional Review Act, Republicans undid more than a dozen regulations that had been finalized late in Obama’s second term.
Gun control advocates such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence applauded the mental incapacity rule, but its critics included civil liberty and disability advocates. The rule would have restricted firearms sales for roughly 80,000 people, though the restrictions could be appealed.
“The thousands of Americans whose disability benefits are managed by someone else range from young people with depression and financial inexperience to older adults with Down syndrome needing help with a limited budget,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a February 2017 statement. “But no data ― none ― show that these individuals have a propensity for violence in general or gun violence in particular.”
Research shows that most mass shooters don’t have severe mental health problems. The man arrested in the killing of 22 people in El Paso on Saturday allegedly wrote that he was doing it to fight an “invasion” of immigrants, echoing the president’s racist rhetoric.
Trump said Wednesday that background checks and mental health policies, rather than restrictions on types of firearms, are his main focus. He told reporters that he’s hoping Republicans and Democrats in Congress can agree on gun control legislation focused on those topics. Administration officials have said they’re also looking at addressing the matters through executive action, though they haven’t specified what they have in mind.
Last year, the Trump administration used its executive authority to ban bump stocks that allow semi-automatic rifles to fire as rapidly as illegal machine guns. Bump stocks helped a gunman massacre 58 people in Las Vegas in 2017.
White House spokespeople did not reply to a request for comment on whether the president would favor bringing back the restriction on firearms for mentally impaired Social Security recipients.
One complication looms for such a move ― federal agencies are not supposed to be able to reissue regulations struck down by the Congressional Review Act. But the Trump administration has already shown it doesn’t care about that restriction. One of the Obama rules Republicans nixed in 2017 had to do with drug testing the jobless; the Trump administration brought it back last year in a tougher form.