Why the ACLU supported Trump when he scrapped rule limiting guns for mentally ill

In the wake of the Florida school shooting, U.S. President Donald Trump is facing heat for rescinding an Obama-era rule that would have blocked guns from getting in the hands of the mentally ill. But mental health advocacy groups and the ACLU agree the rule should be scrapped.

The shooting spree at the Florida school claimed the lives of 17 people

Following the mass shooting at a south Florida high school U.S. President Donald Trump said in a televised public address said that the government was committed to 'tackle the difficult issue of mental health.' (Evan Vucci/ Associated Press)

In the wake of the Florida school shooting, U.S. President Donald Trump is facing heat for having rescinded an Obama-era rule that would have blocked guns from getting in the hands of the mentally ill.

Trump referred to mental health issues shortly after the Wednesday shooting spree at a school in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead. The president took to Twitter to claim there were "so many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed."

He raised the issue again in his televised public address, saying that the government was committed to "tackle the difficult issue of mental health."

Yet some have pointed out it was Trump who blocked a regulation implemented by then-president Barack Obama ​that may have made it more difficult  for thousands of people with mental disorders from being able to purchase a firearm.

'You did that'

Trump likes to "say this is a mental health issue, but one of your very first acts as president, Mr. Trump, was to actually roll back the regulations that were designed to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill," said TV talk show host Jimmy Kimmel. 

"You did that."

In February 2017, Trump repealed an Obama-era rule to strengthen the federal gun background check system after the 2012 shooting of 20 young students and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

There are laws in the United States regarding the sale of weapons to some mentally ill individuals. It is unlawful to sell a firearm to a person who "has been adjudicated as a mental defective" or "has been committed to any mental institution."

Obama's regulation would also have required the Social Security Administration to send the names of some people unable to manage their disability benefits because of mental impairments to the criminal background check system database.

Those people, estimated to number around 75,000, could have been prevented from owning or purchasing a firearm and may have been forced to prove why they were competent enough to do so, opponents of the regulation argued.

Those opposed, not surprisingly, included the gun lobby group the National Rifle Association. But on this particular issue, Trump also had backing from an organization usually highly critical of him: The American Civil Liberties Union.

In a blog post last year, the ACLU said that while it does not oppose gun control laws, those laws need to be be fair and not based on prejudice and stereotype.

Trump signed legislation that would block a regulation implemented by then-president Barack Obama ​that may have made it more difficult for thousands of people with mental disorders from being able to purchase firearms. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

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 ACLU wrote.

"But no data — none — show that these individuals have a propensity for violence in general or gun violence in particular," the ACLU said.

'Disturbing trend'

To add innocent Americans to this criminal database because of a mental disability "is a disturbing trend," it said.

The regulation was also opposed by advocates for people with disabilities and mental health issues.

"There is, simply put, no nexus between the inability to manage money and the ability to safely and responsibly own, possess or use a firearm," wrote the National Council on Disability

The National Alliance on Mental Illness said the rule "may deter individuals from applying for these benefits for fear that their names will be added to a public database maintained by the FBI."

Meanwhile, the American Association of People with Disabilities argued that the rule sends an "extraordinarily damaging message" that  "people with mental impairments could should be feared and shunned."

Still,  some gun control advocates were upset with the decision to rescind Obama's regulation. Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told the Associated Press at the time that scrapping the regulation was "heartless." 

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Democratic Senator Chris Murphy told the Associated Press he didn't know how he could explain to his constituents, including those in Newtown, that Congress was making it easier rather than harder for people with serious mental illness to have a gun.

"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," Murphy said.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press