Congress Must Stop Scapegoating People With Mental Health Disabilities

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The House has voted to pass HR 1112, a bill that would close the “Charleston Loophole”, which currently enables some people who have failed criminal background checks to purchase guns. While we would like to applaud this effort to enforce existing common-sense gun laws, an unrelated amendment introduced by Representative Collins would strip basic rights from millions of people with disabilities. We urge the Senate to not pass this bill until this attack on our community can be remedied.

Under current law, guns cannot be purchased by someone deemed a “mental defective”. Representative Collins’ amendment would replace that offensive term with a new definition, in what seems on the surface to be an effort to avoid stigmatizing people with disabilities. However, the replacement for this definition would in fact outlaw the purchase of guns for people with “mental illness, severe developmental disability, or severe emotional instability.” That means the ability to purchase guns could now be taken from anyone with an intellectual, developmental, or mental health disability. This is unacceptable.

In 2017, ASAN successfully repealed attempts by the Obama administration to expand this definition in a similar way. Like other disability rights groups, we believe that the solution to the offensive and harmful use of the term “mental defective,” which primarily targets disabled people who have been institutionalized, is to simply remove the provision entirely. Laws should be based on evidence, and the evidence is clear: people with disabilities are more likely to be the victims of gun violence. These kinds of misinformation and stereotypes hurt some of the most marginalized people in our society. We can do better. But if Congress is not willing to fight for our rights, then the very least it can do is refrain from making the situation worse.

Too often, the subject of gun violence has been used to scapegoat people with disabilities and mental health conditions. This is a particularly egregious case, as this provision is being tacked onto an otherwise crucial countermeasure against the purchase of guns by individuals with a criminal history. It is time to remind Congress that effective gun laws cannot come at the cost of the civil rights of people with disabilities. We urge the Senate to remove this provision from the bill before it moves any further.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization run by and for autistic people. ASAN was created to serve as a national grassroots disability rights organization for the autistic community run by and for autistic Americans, advocating for systems change and ensuring that the voices of autistic people are heard in policy debates and the halls of power. Our staff work to educate communities, support self-advocacy in all its forms, and improve public perceptions of autism. ASAN’s members and supporters include autistic adults and youth, cross-disability advocates, and non-autistic family members, professionals, educators, and friends.