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Tuesday, July 16, 2024 | Back issues
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En Banc Court Struggles With|Mental Health Limit to Own Guns

CINCINNATI (CN) - The difficulties of enforcing gun regulations on the mentally ill were brought into focus Wednesday as the en banc Sixth Circuit considered the rights of people involuntarily committed to mental health facilities.

Clifford Tyler was involuntarily admitted to a mental institution in 1986 after an emotionally devastating divorce left him depressed and suicidal.

He was released less than a month later, according to court documents, and has had no other instances of severe depression. Tyler also remarried, remained in the workforce for 19 years and has no criminal record.

Federal law bars him from buying a gun, however, because Section 922(g)(4) of Title 18 prevents any mentally ill person from owning firearms. This provision includes individuals who have been involuntarily committed, though many states allow citizens to apply for relief from the restriction.

But Tyler, now 74, lives in Michigan - a state with no relief process. He filed a federal complaint against the Hillsdale County Sheriff's Department, among other county, state and federal officials, after the FBI dismissed appeals over his background check.

Though a federal judge dismissed the case, the Sixth Circuit reversed last year, striking the federal statute down as unconstitutional.

The federal appeals court vacated this finding in favor of an en banc rehearing, however, and the parties gathered Wednesday before the 11-judge court to make their case.

Luke McCarthy, an attorney for Tyler with the firm Hartwell, Failey & Mccarthy, pressed the court to consider how the law "affects mentally healthy individuals."

"You cannot base a mental illness on involuntary commitment," McCarthy said.

"Doctors have said [Tyler] is mentally healthy, and so this court must assume he is mentally healthy," the attorney added.

Judge Julia Smith Gibbons asked the Grand Rapids attorney what he envisions as the "procedural future" for the case.

For McCarthy, a U.S. District Court must take the lead.

"The District Court will have to listen to evidence about [Tyler's] mental health and make a decision," McCarthy added.

Several judges seemed leery of a situation in which district courts could become bogged down by cases involving people trying to get their gun rights back.

"Would every person [involuntarily committed] be able to [go before a court]?" Judge John Rogers asked. "Couldn't every person argue they are mentally healthy [and require] ... the state to come up with contrary evidence?"

Though McCarthy said the courts would consider only credible cases, the judges did not appear persuaded.

In his rebuttal, McCarthy questioned whether a single episode of depression more than three decades ago warrants Tyler's present predicament.

The court pelted the attorney for the United States with questions about whether the federal statute is overly broad and deprives too many innocent people of their constitutional right to bear arms.

Justice Department attorney Abby Wright told the court that "a wide casting net is justified because of the government's interest in predicting and preventing future events."

"It is not easy to be involuntarily committed," she said.

Judge Danny Julian Boggs was not so sure about that, noting that health care for the mentally ill has changed significantly since Tyler's bout with depression. "We've emptied out asylums in this country," he said.

Boggs asked whether other groups of people should be singled out, along with the mentally ill.

"You say the government gets to make some predictions, but can it rely on the weak evidence [of a 30-year-old involuntary commitment]?" Boggs asked. "What about steroid users? They are prone to be more violent. Eighteen-to-21-year-old males are generally dangerous."

Wright responded that steroid users would already be precluded from owning guns because of illegal drug use. Recent studies also show that the statute has already reduced gun violence in some states, the attorney added.

Tyler's attorney McCarthy noted it would be "preferable that the district court not be involved," but that there is "nowhere else for my client to turn."

The Sixth Circuit did not indicate when it might rule.

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