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Julianna Rennie
By Julianna Rennie April 22, 2019

Did Republicans rush to repeal law preventing the mentally ill from buying guns in 2017?

If elected president in 2020, California Rep. Eric Swalwell promises to break the deadlock on gun control legislation.

So far, he has teamed up with Parkland survivor Cameron Kasky and other anti-gun violence organizations. He also proposed a national ban and buyback of semi-automatic assault weapons.

Like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on climate change, Swalwell is distinguishing himself from his many opponents in the Democratic primary by focusing on one issue.

After announcing his candidacy on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," Swalwell held a campaign rally in his hometown of Dublin, Calif. During the speech, he said:

"In 2017, Republicans took control of the House, the Senate, and the presidency. Sorry to remind you. The very first piece of legislation that they passed — the act that would tell the world, ‘These are the values we espouse above all others’ — was a bill that made it easier for the mentally ill to purchase guns. They called it House Joint Resolution 40."

The fourth-term congressman accurately described the Republican-sponsored law, but it wasn’t the first to pass that year.

What does the Republicans’ law really say?

H.J. Res. 40 undid a Social Security Administration rule requiring the agency to report certain disabled applicants to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Federal law stipulates that anyone "who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution" cannot own a gun. In 2008, George W. Bush signed the NICS Improvement Amendment Act, which mandated federal agencies to report certain disabled individuals to the database. Federally licensed firearms dealers use the database to screen potential gun buyers.

The SSA rule was issued in 2016 to comply with the NICS Improvement Amendment Act. The Obama administration said that it would affect "the approximately 75,000 people each year who have a documented mental health issue, receive disability benefits, and are unable to manage those benefits because of their mental impairment, or who have been found by a state or federal court to be legally incompetent." It also included a mechanism for people to seek an exemption from the ban on owning a gun for mental health reasons.

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But in 2017, Republicans — backed by the National Rifle Association and disability rights groups — initiated a rarely-used process to void the SSA rule.

At the forefront of the effort was Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, who argued that the federal regulation stigmatized people with disabilities and infringed on the constitutional right to bear arms.

A blog post by the American Civil Liberties Union said, "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. But no data — none — show that these individuals have a propensity for violence in general or gun violence in particular."

Other organizations opposed the reversal. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence released a statement that said if H.J. Res. 40 passed, "people considered a danger to themselves or others will once again be allowed to get guns."

Some states have their own laws on reporting certain disabled people to the NICS or a similar state database, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Was it the first law Republicans passed?

President Donald Trump signed H.J. Res. 40 into law on Feb. 28, 2017. But it wasn’t the first law passed by the Republican-controlled Congress that year. It wasn’t even the first joint resolution.

The laws passed before that included measures to nullify environmental protections related to coal mining and promote women and girls in STEM careers.

Our ruling

Swalwell said that after Republicans won the majority in both chambers of Congress, the first law they passed made it easier for the mentally ill to purchase guns. He was correct that H.J. Res. 40 eliminated barriers for certain disabled individuals to buy guns, but it wasn’t the first law passed in 2017.

We rate the claim Half-True.

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Half True
In 2017, the first piece of legislation that Republicans passed "made it easier for the mentally ill to purchase guns."
at a campaign rally in Dublin, California
Sunday, April 14, 2019

Our Sources, H.J. Res. 40, 2017

Swalwell campaign website

Email interview, Max Samis, Press Secretary at Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

CBS, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, April 8, 2019

NBC News, "Rep. Eric Swalwell to officially announce 2020 presidential campaign," April 14, 2019

The Atlantic, "Eric Swalwell Is Running for President on Gun Safety," April 4, 2019, "Trump Nixed Gun-Control Rule," October 6, 2017

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Identify Prohibited Persons

Office of the Federal Register, "Implementation of the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007," December 19, 2016

The White House, "FACT SHEET: New Executive Actions to Reduce Gun Violence and Make Our Communities Safer," January 4, 2016

Politico, "Congress blocks rule barring mentally impaired from guns," February 15, 2017

American Civil Liberties Union, "Gun Control Laws Should Be Fair," February 20, 2017

Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, "Senate Votes to Make America Dangerous Again"

Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, "Mental Health Reporting"

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Did Republicans rush to repeal law preventing the mentally ill from buying guns in 2017?

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