Social Security and Gun Ownership: Beyond the Hype

social security and gun ownership

The other day I saw a startling headline. It read, “Obama Administration Finalizes Social Security Gun Ban.” The sub-headline read, “On Monday the Obama administration finalized a Social Security gun ban that could prevent ‘tens of thousands’ of law-abiding elderly citizens from purchasing guns for self-defense.”

It didn’t take much browsing to find more headlines that were equally disturbing:

Obama’s Secret Plan To Block Seniors On Social Security From Owning Guns on Breitbart

SPREAD THIS: Obama Makes Huge Move to BAN Social Security Recipients From Owning Guns  on Conservative Tribune

Obama to Ban Thousands of Senior Citizens from Owning Firearms on GunOwners.org

With provocative headlines such as those, it’s no wonder that I’ve been fielding calls and emails from worried retirees. Will seniors really be forced to surrender their firearms before they can receive Social Security payments?

As with many sensational headlines, this headline contains enough truth to keep it from being a flat out lie. However, that’s not the same as being accurate. Not even close.

The Gun Buying Process

To understand what is really happening, you need to know how the firearm buying process works.

If you go into your local sporting goods store and see firearms for sale, the store possesses a Federal Firearms License (FFL). This license is issued by the the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, commonly known as the ATF. In exchange for granting this license, the ATF mandates that firearm retailers determine whether each customer is eligible to purchase a gun.  The retailer accomplishes this through performing a background check on prospective purchasers. The background check system that is used is called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, commonly referred to as the NICS.  Once a prospective buyer’s name is submitted to the NCIS, there will be one of three outcomes:

  • Proceed: In most places, a person is cleared to purchase and leave with a firearm.
  • Delayed: A delay will often happen due to a common last name or other information that potentially matches them to an individual with a prohibition.
  • Denied: This means the potential purchaser is prohibited by the FBI from purchasing a firearm.

Currently, there are 10 types of people who would automatically be denied the right to purchase a firearm:

  • felons,
  • fugitives,
  • unlawful user of controlled substances,
  • the mentally ill,
  • illegal immigrants,
  • individuals who have renounced U.S. citizenship,
  • individuals under restraining orders,
  • individuals convicted of domestic violence, and
  • anyone charged with a crime that could bring more than a year in prison.

Since the system was launched in late 1998, more than 230 million background checks have been made (with 1.3 million denials).

What’s This Got To Do With Social Security?

So, is the Social Security Administration (SSA) really getting involved in the gun buying process?

Yes…sort of.

In 2007, a law was written to improve the NICS.  It is called the NICS Improvement Act of 2007 (NIAA).  This law requires all federal agencies, including the SSA, to provide relevant records to be used in the background check system.

This law was passed after the shootings at Virginia Tech University.  The gunman had previously been ruled mentally impaired, but the information had not been submitted to the NICS.  Because the background check system did not have information about the gunman’s condition, it had no reason to prohibit the sale when he purchased the guns used in the shooting spree.

The SSA examined the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 to see how it applied to their records.  Almost ten years later, on December 19, 2016, the SSA released the results of their investigation.  The SSA’s examination of the law determined that the SSA would have to release certain information to the NICS.

Here’s the nugget of truth that makes the headlines so inflammatory:  By December of 2017, the Social Security Administration will begin sharing certain specific information about certain recipients of Social Security benefits.   This information will be shared with the Attorney General’s office, who may pass it on to the FBI, after which the individual could be added to the NICS list, and thus barred from purchasing a firearm.

Who Will Be Affected?

Despite what the headlines suggest, only a very small percentage of Social Security recipients will be affected.  The SSA will identify individuals, according to their records, meet the mental health guidelines listed in Federal Regulations. The specific language is that any person is prohibited from firearm purchases if they have been “adjudicated as a mental defective.” They expand on this definition of “mental defective” as an individual that has been deemed unable to manage their own affairs due to “marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease.”

Once you step away from their ambiguous language,  you can make sense out of who, why and when an individual could be reported to the NICS and potentially be barred from purchasing a gun.

In order for an individual to be reported to NICS, they have to meet the five (5) criteria.

  1. The individual must have filed a claim for disability benefits, AND
  2. The individual must be awarded disability benefits with a mental impairment that is on the Listing of Impairments-Mental Disorders, AND
  3. The mental impairment must be the primary reason for the disability benefit, AND
  4. The individual must be at least age 18, but not yet full retirement age, AND
  5. The individual must require that his or her benefit payments be made through a representative payee because we have determined that he or she is mentally incapable of managing benefit payments.

It’s not mix and match. In order for the Social Security Administration to report an individual to the NICS, the individual must meet all five of these conditions.

A Slippery Slope?

When the Social Security Administration first announced their notice of proposed rule making, they received more than 91,000 comments from the public. Interestingly enough, they took the time to note that 86,860 of these comment letters were identical and from different members of the same advocacy group. You can read some of the commentary and public comments HERE.

Both sides, those for this rule and those against this rule, have strong and valid arguments.

Supporters of this new rule believe that it is obvious. If someone has a mental impairment, the Gun Control Act of 1968 strictly prohibits the purchasing of firearms by an individual with a mental disability. Why all the uproar when nothing has really changed?

Those who are against this rule say it could turn into a broad brush that could include numerous people who may just have a bad memory or difficulty doing household finances and simply don’t pose a danger to themselves or anyone else. Should someone who enjoys hunting, but has PTSD, be denied the right to purchase a firearm?

As the date of implementation gets closer, you’ll probably start to hear more news about this. Unfortunately, this “news” will often be sensational and misleading.

A final note

Thanks for reading!  I appreciate your support!

As more people have discovered this site, my email inbox is busting at the seams. Frankly, it’s gotten to the point where I can’t keep up. I’d love to answer each and every email with a thoughtful response. Unfortunately, it’s just not possible.

That stinks because I love interacting with my readers and answering Social Security questions!

But please, keep the emails coming! I’ll continue to answer as many questions as possible, focusing on questions that will benefit the widest audience, publishing the question and the answer here so everyone can learn.   (Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you remain anonymous.)

If you need definite and personal answers, I am still accepting individual consultations. You can click HERE for more information on booking.

Thanks for reading!