Social Security and Gun Ownership: Beyond the Hype

social security and gun ownership

A few years ago I saw a startling headline. It read, “Obama Administration Finalizes Social Security Gun Ban.” The sub-headline read, “On Monday the Obama administration finalized a Social Security gun ban that could prevent ‘tens of thousands’ of law-abiding elderly citizens from purchasing guns for self-defense.”

It didn’t take much browsing to find more headlines that were equally disturbing:

Obama’s Secret Plan To Block Seniors On Social Security From Owning Guns on Breitbart

SPREAD THIS: Obama Makes Huge Move to BAN Social Security Recipients From Owning Guns  on Conservative Tribune

Obama to Ban Thousands of Senior Citizens from Owning Firearms on GunOwners.org

Since then I’ve seen headlines like these pop back up anytime there is a mass shooting.

With provocative headlines like these, it’s no wonder that I get lots of comments from worried retirees. Will seniors really be forced to surrender their firearms before they can receive Social Security payments?

As with many sensational headlines, this headline contains enough truth to keep it from being a flat out lie. However, that’s not the same as being accurate. Not even close.

The Gun Buying Process

To understand what is really happening, you need to know how the firearm buying process works.

If you go into your local sporting goods store and see firearms for sale, the store possesses a Federal Firearms License (FFL). This license is issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, commonly known as the ATF. In exchange for granting this license, the ATF mandates that firearm retailers determine whether each customer is eligible to purchase a gun.  The retailer accomplishes this through performing a background check on prospective purchasers. The background check system that is used is called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, commonly referred to as the NICS.  Once a prospective buyer’s name is submitted to the NCIS, there will be one of three outcomes:

  • Proceed: In most places, a person is cleared to purchase and leave with a firearm.
  • Delayed: A delay will often happen due to a common last name or other information that potentially matches them to an individual with a prohibition.
  • Denied: This means the potential purchaser is prohibited by the FBI from purchasing a firearm.

Currently, there are 10 types of people who would automatically be denied the right to purchase a firearm:

  • felons,
  • fugitives,
  • unlawful user of controlled substances,
  • the mentally ill,
  • illegal immigrants,
  • individuals who have renounced U.S. citizenship,
  • individuals under restraining orders,
  • individuals convicted of domestic violence, and
  • anyone charged with a crime that could bring more than a year in prison.

Since the system was launched in late 1998, more than 300 million background checks have been made (with 1.5 million denials).

What Do Gun Laws Have To Do With Social Security?

So, is the Social Security Administration (SSA) really getting involved in the gun buying process?

Yes…sort of.

In 2007, a law was written to improve the NICS.  It is called the NICS Improvement Act of 2007 (NIAA).  This law requires all federal agencies, including the SSA, to provide relevant records to be used in the background check system.

This law was passed after the shootings at Virginia Tech University.  The gunman had previously been ruled mentally impaired, but the information had not been submitted to the NICS.  Because the background check system did not have information about the gunman’s condition, it had no reason to prohibit the sale when he purchased the guns used in the shooting spree.

The SSA examined the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 to see how it applied to their records.  Almost ten years later, on December 19, 2016, the SSA released the results of their investigation.  The SSA’s examination of the law determined that the SSA would have to release certain information to the NICS.

In December of 2017, the Social Security Administration was supposed to begin sharing certain specific information about certain recipients of Social Security benefits.   This information will be shared with the Attorney General’s office, who may pass it on to the FBI, after which the individual could be added to the NICS list, and thus barred from purchasing a firearm. However, in February of 2017 the NICS Improvement Amendments Act was repealed by President Trump.

Now Biden has made it clear that he will revive this law and mandate the sharing of information between government agencies.

Who Will Be Affected?

Despite what the headlines suggest, only a very small percentage of Social Security recipients will be affected.  The SSA will identify individuals, according to their records, meet the mental health guidelines listed in Federal Regulations. The specific language is that any person is prohibited from firearm purchases if they have been “adjudicated as a mental defective.” They expand on this definition of “mental defective” as an individual that has been deemed unable to manage their own affairs due to “marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease.”

Once you step away from their ambiguous language,  you can make sense out of who, why, and when an individual could be reported to the NICS and potentially be barred from purchasing a gun.

In order for an individual to be reported to NICS, they have to meet the five (5) criteria.

  1. The individual must have filed a claim for disability benefits, AND
  2. The individual must be awarded disability benefits with a mental impairment that is on the Listing of Impairments-Mental Disorders, AND
  3. The mental impairment must be the primary reason for the disability benefit, AND
  4. The individual must be at least age 18, but not yet full retirement age, AND
  5. The individual must require that his or her benefit payments be made through a representative payee because we have determined that he or she is mentally incapable of managing benefit payments.

It’s not mix and match. In order for the Social Security Administration to report an individual to the NICS, the individual must meet all five of these conditions.

A Slippery Slope Towards Gun Control?

When the Social Security Administration first announced their notice of proposed rule making, they received more than 91,000 comments from the public. Interestingly enough, they took the time to note that 86,860 of these comment letters were identical and from different members of the same advocacy group. You can read some of the commentary and public comments HERE.

Both sides, those for this rule and those against this rule, have strong and valid arguments.

Supporters of this new rule believe that it is obvious. If someone has a mental impairment, the Gun Control Act of 1968 strictly prohibits the purchasing of firearms by an individual with a mental disability. Why all the uproar when nothing has really changed?

Those who are against this rule say it could turn into a broad brush that could include numerous people who may just have a bad memory or difficulty doing household finances and simply don’t pose a danger to themselves or anyone else. Should someone who enjoys hunting, but has PTSD, be denied the right to purchase a firearm?

As the date of implementation gets closer, you’ll probably start to hear more news about this. Unfortunately, this “news” will often be sensational and misleading.


If you still have questions, you could leave a comment below, but what may be an even greater help is to join my FREE Facebook members group. It’s very active and has some really smart people who love to answer any questions you may have about Social Security. From time to time I’ll even drop in to add my thoughts, too. Also…if you haven’t already, you should join the 295,000+ subscribers on my YouTube channel!

Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Parma gun stores near me

Rather than teaching your children, for instance, that a gun is a tool to be feared, teach them that it is a tool to be respected. The best way to do this will be by instructing them with hands-on shooting experience, and you obviously have to own a gun for this to work.

Chrissy P
Chrissy P
3 years ago

So if an adult that is diagnosed with bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder and collects SSI they cannot own a gun?

Concerned Mother
Concerned Mother
4 years ago

Someone please explain to my why my ex meets all five qualifications but has a concealed carry and owns five handguns around my minor son? Who do I report this to?!

Kaiten ramotowski
Kaiten ramotowski
4 years ago

So can someone tell me how ssa can break hippa laws and release my private medical history to the government I’ve been disabled for 21 years for bipolar 1 disorder so if some one. Breaks into my house @ 2. Am what grab butter knife a pray

Derek McDoogle
4 years ago

I did not know the fact that he ATF mandates that firearm retailers determine whether each customer is eligible to purchase a gun. My dad told me that he has seen a few robberies in his neighborhood and he is afraid that when he is not at home, my mom gets assaulted. I will let him know to get a gun permit so that he can buy one and keep it at home.

4 years ago

If what I’m reading is correct than my now 13 year old grandson with learning disabilities amd ADHD should be able to own a gun at age 18. His benefits may end at that time. I will no longer be a recipient on his behalf as he should be able to receive on his own. Thank you for the information.

5 years ago

The author tries to dispute the claim of “Obama to Ban Thousands of Senior Citizens from Owning Firearms” with “only a very small percentage of Social Security recipients will be affected”.
Just because the auther refers to the number of folks affected as “only a very small percentage”, does not mean that number is less than two thousand.

5 years ago

Now, in the aftermath of Parkland, President Trump and other Republicans seem to once again be seeking to stigmatize people with disabilities rather than pursue common sense solutions around gun control for the general public.

5 years ago

You’re fake news, the majority of people who have a payee are trusting and gullible. The biggest issue is it would have denied gun rights without due process without a lawyer. It is JUDGES who are to declare someone mentally incompetent, not some schmucks at the SSA who are only looking at the person’s ability to spend their money on themselves instead of give it away like I’ve seen some gullible SSI recipients do. Being unable to manage money responsibly does not mean they’re going to go out and murder your kids and screw your wife. Repealing this was probably… Read more »

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x