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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
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Gun Ban for Mentally Ill Stricken as Too Broad

(CN) - A federal law prohibiting anyone who has ever been committed to a mental institution from owning a firearm is unconstitutional, the 6th Circuit ruled.

"The government's interest in keeping firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill is not sufficiently related to depriving the mentally healthy, who had a distant episode of commitment, of their constitutional rights," U.S. Circuit Judge Danny Boggs said, writing for the three-judge panel.

U.S. Circuit Jude Julia Gibbons joined the majority, but also wrote her own concurring opinion.

Clifford Tyler, a 73-year-old resident of Hillsdale County, Michigan, brought a 2nd Amendment challenge to a federal law prohibiting the possession of firearms by a person "who has been committed to a mental institution."

Tyler was committed for less than a month 28 years ago when his wife served him divorce papers, ran away with another man, and depleted his bank account.

Feeling "overwhelmed," Tyler's children found him "in the middle of the floor at home pounding his head." A psychological evaluation found that Tyler was depressed, sobbing, had suicidal thoughts, and had not been sleeping.

He remained at a psychiatric center for two to four weeks before returning home.

Since then, Tyler has never had another depressive episode. He remarried, remained in the workforce for 19 years, and has no criminal record.

A psychologist recently determined that Tyler's prior involuntary commitment "appeared to be a brief reactive depressive episode in response to his wife divorcing him," and that he now has no sign of mental illness.

"We have no trouble concluding that § 922(g)(4), which prohibits possession of firearms by individuals 'adjudicated as a mental defective' or who have 'been committed to a mental institution,' furthers compelling interests," Boggs said.

But the court added that the law must be narrowly tailored to achieve the government's interest, without being so overbroad as to step on citizen's constitutional rights unnecessarily.

For example, "Congress probably can regulate firearms at schools, but it probably cannot ban all teachers from owning firearms. Such a prohibition would no doubt implicate the government's interest in preventing violent crime at schools, but it would also cover a substantial amount of conduct not implicating the interest," the court said.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller supports a law forbidding gun possession by the mentally ill, according to the judgment.

But "[n]ot all previously institutionalized persons are mentally ill at a later time, so the law is, at least somewhat, overbroad," Boggs said.

The court said its finding is supported by Congress' decision to create a relief-from disabilities program that permits formerly institutionalized citizens to regain their firearm rights by showing that they are unlikely to present a threat. However, this option is not available to Tyler because Congress has chosen not to fund the program since 1992.

"We have reviewed scores of opinions presenting post-Heller Second Amendment challenges, and we do not believe that any other court of appeals in a reasoned opinion has reviewed a firearm restriction as severe as this one - one that forever deprives a law-abiding, non-violent, non-felon of his Second Amendment rights," Boggs said.

The district court must declare the law unconstitutional, unless the government can show why Tyler should be considered a dangerous person, the Cincinnati-based appeals court ruled.

"It may be true that '[n]o Second Amendment challenge since Heller to any of [§ 922's 'who'] provisions has succeeded' in the courts of appeals. But no court has grappled with the provision at issue here under such circumstances," the panel said.

In her concurrence, Judge Gibbons explained she was moved to write separately to "express my view that we should avoid extensive discussion of the degree of scrutiny to be applied and the ultimate application of strict scrutiny."

"While I have substantial doubts as to whether strict scrutiny applies in this particular context -- especially considering the general trend of our sister circuits -- it is unnecessary to reach the issue," she wrote.

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