The One Campaign Promise I Hope Joe Biden Doesn't Keep
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President Joe Biden proposed a fairly ambitious disability policy during the 2020 Presidential election. He vowed to end the marriage penalty, abolish the subminimum wage and make staggering improvements to accessible transportation. While Biden advocated for much that was good, part of his gun policy would have a deleterious impact on disabled civil liberties. To truly demonstrate a commitment to our civil rights, Biden must abandon his campaign promise to abrogate the gun rights of people with mental health disabilities who have representative payees under the Social Security Administration.
The Policy and Its History
Biden’s gun policy as it concerns people with mental health disabilities was originally an executive order signed by President Barack Obama, but overturned by Congressional Republicans and President Trump in 2017. It would have barred people with mental health conditions receiving disability benefits who also have payees to help them manage their finances from owning guns. How would the Biden administration achieve this end? The answer is by classifying them as “mental defectives,” who are already prohibited from keeping or bearing arms. While the former Vice President never spelled out his plans in the disability policy he touted to advocates during the 2020 election, impinging on people with mental health disabilities’ civil rights was part of the gun control agenda posted on his website.
Why the Policy Is Harmful to Disabled People
Biden’s gun proposal, besides being opposed by the ACLU and disability rights organizations, is deleterious to the community as a whole. Despite what media representations of mental illness may depict, people with mental health disabilities are far more likely to be the victims of crimes than the perpetrators. Furthermore, they are hardly violent in the first place, meaning that there is no compelling reason to restrict their right to gun ownership. Also, the proposed legislation is problematic because it reverses the burden of proof; instead of needing to establish that a particular person with a mental health disability is violent before rescinding their gun rights, the burden is foisted on an entire population to prove that they are not a danger to society.
In addition to being Constitutionally problematic, the language of “mental defectives” is eugenic in nature; it employs ableist verbiage to articulate that a class of disabled people is somehow “less than” because they are unable to work and may need help with financial matters. People who have payees because of mental health disabilities are hardly defective; all they may need is help managing their money. I would hope that with the lessons of the 20th century, which is littered with examples of populations being oppressed after being declared “defective,” American politicians would have comprehended the slippery slope of employing such language.
The Implications Beyond Gun Rights
While it would be one thing if it were merely the gun rights of certain disabled people which were at stake, the entire livelihoods of these individuals could be on the line if Biden were to enact this legislation or sign an executive order on the matter. Flagging people with mental health disabilities with payees in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) means that they would fail a background check. These checks are necessary for such basic affairs as renting an apartment and for most jobs. In other words, such a law could affect people’s chances to rent an apartment or ever find work should their conditions improve. In short, Biden’s gun policy, if enacted, would marginalize a whole class of people whose only crime is having a disability and being judged to need help managing their finances.
The Democrats have long argued that they are the party of civil liberties, minority rights and inclusion in general. Yet, employing the language of eugenics and shibboleths about people with mental health disabilities, President Biden is poised to violate the civil liberties of a whole class of people. My hope is that the President would first enact a task force to study gun violence, where he would discover that, in addition to oppressing an entire subset of disabled people, abrogating the gun rights of individuals with mental health disabilities who have payees under the SSA would not have prevented a single mass shooting. Furthermore, policies such as these mean that disability rights advocates need to be vigilant no matter who is President to ensure that we are allowed the same freedoms as the non-disabled population. No human is a “mental defective,” and we all are owed the same protections under the U.S. Constitution.
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