Circuit court casts doubt on mental illness, firearm prohibition

handgun, bullets, and a legal gavel on a US flag
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Clifford Tyler was briefly involuntarily committed in 1985, following a bout of severe depression arising from an emotional divorce from a marriage of 23 years.

In 2011, Tyler attempted to purchase a gun. Despite having no subsequent diagnosis or documented history of mental illness, Tyler was barred from doing so, due to the Gun Control Act’s prohibition on firearm ownership for people who have been “civilly committed.”

On September 15, a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that this blanket prohibition may run contrary to the Second Amendment.

Ever since the Supreme Court’s landmark 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller [PDF] decision, establishing a Constitutional individual right to firearm ownership, courts have struggled to determine the Second Amendment’s boundaries. In that decision, the Court specified that certain long-standing prohibitions, such as for the “mentally ill,” are presumptive Constitutional.

The District Court dismissed Tyler’s lawsuit, without forcing the government to justify the permanent ban as applied to Tyler. A three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit reversed, a decision that’s now been upheld by a full en banc panel of the court.

“We cannot conclude, based on the current record, that the government has carried its burden to establish a reasonable fit between the important goals of reducing crime and suicides and § 922(g)(4)’s permanent disarmament of all persons with a prior commitment,” the Court wrote in the majority opinion. “There is no indication of the continued risk presented by people who were involuntarily committed many years ago and who have no history of intervening mental illness, criminal activity, or substance abuse.

“Indeed, Congress’s evidence seems to focus solely on the risk posed by those presently mentally ill and who have been recently committed.”

In 1986, Congress created a so-called relief from disabilities program, allowing people prohibited from owning guns due to their mental illness petition the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, to have their rights restored. Congress, however, defunded the program in 1992.

In 2008, Congress passed a new measure that provides grants to create state-level programs. Thirty-one states have since created relief-from-disabilities programs, but Tyler’s home state, Michigan, is not one of them.

“Heller’s presumption of lawfulness should not be used to enshrine a permanent stigma on anyone who has ever been committed to a mental institution for whatever reason,” the Sixth Circuit stated. “Some sort of showing must be made to support Congress’s adoption of prior involuntary commitments as a basis for a categorical, permanent limitation on the Second Amendment right to bear arms.”

The case now returns to the District Court for further fact finding.