Right to bear arms and mental illness

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In a new journal article, Frederick Vars, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, questions the rationale regarding modern gun restrictions on people with mental illnesses, amid the Supreme Court’s recent expansion of Second Amendment rights.

gun over american flag

Right to Bear Arms

In its 2008 decision District of Columbia v. Heller, when the Supreme Court struck down the District’s handgun possession ban and determined that the Constitution protects an individual’s right to bear arms, it expressly stated “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill.”

Vars argues that blanket restrictions on gun ownership for people with all types of mentally illness are based on misguided and stereotypical fears, and would likely fail to meet the heightened scrutiny afforded to Second Amendment restrictions under the Heller decision. However, Vars argues that many of these restrictions could be upheld on the basis that they reduce suicides, which is statistically dramatically more prevalent with people with certain severe mental illness.

For this to be the rationale behind the restrictions, Vars argues that a more “paternalistic” approach is necessary when analyzing the appropriateness of gun restrictions. “Notwithstanding high-profile events like the Aurora, Colorado shooting, the statistical relationship to preventing violence is arguably not substantial. On the other hand, suicide risk is substantially increased for basically all diagnoses,”

Vars wrote. “An undifferentiated and unsubstantiated fear that all persons with mental illness pose a grave threat to others will not suffice. “This lowest common denominator of stigma may ultimately explain the common cause of politicians, the Brady Campaign and the NRA to disarm the mentally ill. But the stronger, and probably constitutionally adequate, rationale is suicide prevention.”