It has been well reported that the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) had been passing along information of individuals that it deemed unable to handle their financial affairs to NICS for the purposes of preventing them from purchasing a firearm due to being “adjudicated as a mental defective.”
In May of this year, the SSA published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. It received over 91,000 comments relating to the proposed rule. Of those, 86,860 were identical letters submitted by various individuals of a single advocacy group, opposing the proposed rule.
On December 19, 2016, the SSA published a Final Rule on the Federal Register pertaining to its regulations. While the regulations take effect on January 18, 2017 compliance is not required until December 19, 2017.
There were a number of comments on various issues, which I will recap a few points quickly below before moving on to explain the final rule and its impact.
Second Amendment and Equal Protection
A number of individuals commented that “these rules would violate the affected individuals’ rights under the Second Amendment to the Constitution, and would also violate their equal protection rights under the Constitution. Most of these comments were provided in largely identical letters, and they asserted that our rules would take firearms away from elderly recipients of Social Security retirement benefits.”
SSA responds stating that “[t]he criteria we will use under these rules do not focus on one age group, such as the elderly or recipients of Social Security retirement benefits, nor do they categorize and treat individuals who are similarly situated differently.” Further, “[w]e do not intend under these rules to report to the NICS any individual for whom we appoint a representative payee based solely on the individual’s application for and receipt of Social Security retirement benefits.”
With regard to the Second Amendment claim, the SSA cites to District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) for the proposition that “[l]ike most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited,” and that “nothing in [the Court’s] opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill.” Heller at 626.
Unfortunately, the Heller decision gives no guidance as to what constitutes mentally ill. Is an individual who was diagnosed with OCD “mentally ill”? Where does one draw the line exactly?
Individuals commented that the due process rights of the beneficiaries would be violated because the beneficiaries would not be able to appeal the decision prior to the inclusion of their information being reported to NICS, raised concerns about adequate notice being given to the beneficiary who might be reported and argued the costs of pursuing relief should an individual be reported to NICS would be onerous.
SSA responded stating that “[a]ffected individuals will have the opportunity to apply for relief from the Federal firearms prohibitions imposed by 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(4) at any time after our adjudication has become final…we will provide individuals with advance notice at the commencement of the adjudication that we may report their information to NICS if we find they meet the criteria for reporting when the adjudication is final.”
SSA goes on to state that they “will provide oral and written notice to the beneficiary at the commencement of the adjudication, which we define as after we have determined that he or she meets the medical requirements for disability based on a finding that his or her impairment(s) meets or medically equals the requirements of the mental disorders listings, but before we find that he or she requires a representative payee.”
Notice is extremely important and a lot of times never given to individuals. SSA incorporating both oral and written notice to an individual is pleasantly surprising, given a the litany of issues I see where an individual is never told that a finding may result in their Second Amendment rights being taken from them.
Lastly, regarding the cost of pursuing relief, SSA dismissed the concerns by stating they will not impose a fee in connection with a request for relief and that it believes the cost to obtain the evidence it would require for such a request for relief as “reasonable”.
Part of the criteria of the new rule is that the individual appealing the decision will provide the SSA medical evidence in the form of a statement of the individual’s current mental health status as well as their mental health during the preceding five years from the applicant’s primary mental health provider. Such evaluations are typically performed by a psychologist and cost anywhere between $1,500 to $2,000 on average.
In order for an individual to be reported to NICS, they have to meet the five (5) criteria spelled out in Section 421.110.
Adjudicated as a mental defective, in accordance with 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(4), as amended, means a determination by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority that a person, as a result of marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease: Is a danger to himself or others; or lacks the mental capacity to contract or manage his own affairs.
An individual will have been “adjudicated as a mental defective” if during SSA’s claim development and adjudication process, or when SSA takes certain post-entitlement or post-eligibility actions, SSA will identify any individual who:
- Has filed a claim based on disability;
- Has been determined to be disabled based on a finding that the individual’s impairment(s) meets or medically equals the requirements of one of the Mental Disorders Listing of Impairments (section 12.00 of appendix 1 to subpart P of part 404 of this chapter) under the rules in part 404, subpart P, of this chapter, or under the rules in part 416, subpart I, of this chapter;
- Has a primary diagnosis code in our records based on a mental impairment;
Primary diagnosis code means the code we use to identify an individual’s primary medical diagnosis in our records. The primary diagnosis refers to the basic condition that renders an individual disabled under the rules in part 404, subpart P, of this chapter, or under the rules in part 416, subpart I, of this chapter.
- Has attained age 18, but has not attained full retirement age; and
- Requires that his or her benefit payments be made through a representative payee because we have determined, under the rules in part 404, subpart U, of this chapter, or the rules in part 416, subpart F, of this chapter, that he or she is mentally incapable of managing benefit payments.
These criteria will be applied to capability findings that are made in connection with initial claims on or after December 19, 2017 and capability findings that are made in connection with continuing disability reviews (including age-18 disability redeterminations under § 416.987) on or after December 19, 2017. The latter provision will only apply in instances with respect to capability findings in which SSA appoints a representative payee for an individual in connection with a continuing disability review.
If the individual does not meet all five of the aforementioned requirements, then they will not be reported to NICS.
The regulations provide that if SSA determines the person is “mental defective” they will provide both oral and written notice to the affected individual that:
(a) A finding that he or she meets the criteria in § 421.110(b)(1) through (5), when final, will prohibit the individual from purchasing, possessing, receiving, shipping, or transporting firearms and ammunition, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 922(d)(4) and (g)(4);
(c) Relief from the Federal firearms prohibitions imposed by 18 U.S.C. 922(d)(4) and (g)(4) by virtue of our adjudication is available under the NIAA.
If an individual is reported, they may request relief from SSA as to the determination. Per Section 421.150 an application for relief must be in writing and include the information required by § 421.151. It may also include any other supporting data that the SSA or the applicant deems appropriate. When an individual requests relief under this section, SSA will also obtain a criminal history report on the individual before deciding whether to grant the request for relief.
Section 421.151 requires the applicant provide:
- A current statement from the applicant’s primary mental health provider assessing the applicant’s current mental health status and mental health status for the 5 years preceding the date of the request for relief; and
The statement must specifically address:
(i) Whether the applicant has ever been a danger to himself or herself or others; and
(ii) Whether the applicant would pose a danger to himself or herself or others if we granted the applicant’s request for relief and the applicant purchased and possessed a firearm or ammunition.
- Written statements and any other evidence regarding the applicant’s reputation.
The statements must specifically:
(i) Identify the person supplying the information;
(ii) Provide the person’s current address and telephone number;
(iii) Describe the person’s relationship with and frequency of contact with the applicant;
(iv) Indicate whether the applicant has a reputation for violence in the community; and
(v) Indicate whether the applicant would pose a danger to himself or herself or others if we granted the applicant’s request for relief and the applicant purchased and possessed a firearm or ammunition.
The applicant may obtain written statements from anyone who knows the applicant, including but not limited to clergy, law enforcement officials, employers, friends, and family members, as long as the person providing the statement has known the applicant for a sufficient period, has had recent and frequent contact with the beneficiary, and can attest to the beneficiary’s good reputation. At least one statement must be from an individual who is not related to the applicant by blood or marriage.
The burden is on the applicant to show that he/she is not likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety and that granting relief from the prohibitions imposed by 18 U.S.C. 922(d)(4) and (g)(4) will not be contrary to the public interest. Assuming those criteria are met, the SSA may grant relief. Unfortunately, the regulation does not state that they shall grant relief.
SSA’s regulations provide that a decision maker who was not involved in making the finding that the applicant’s benefit payments be made through a representative payee will review the evidence and act on the request for relief. If the request is denied, the applicant will have 60 days to file a petition for review in a Federal District Court. If the application for relief is approved, SSA will provide the applicant with written notice as to the reason for their decision, inform them that they are no longer prohibited under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(4) from purchasing, possessing, receiving, shipping, or transporting firearms or ammunition based on the prohibition that we granted the applicant relief from, and inform the Attorney General of the decision in order to remove the applicant from the NICS database.
SSA has 365 days to act upon an application pursuant to NICS Improvement Amendments Act.
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