Gun Ban Struck Down for Involuntarily Committed

     CINCINNATI (CN) — A person involuntarily committed to a mental-health facility is not permanently barred from owning a gun, a divided en banc Sixth Circuit ruled Thursday.
     The Cincinnati-based appeals court overturned a lower court decision and ruled that “prior involuntary commitment is not coextensive with current mental illness,” but that “intermediate scrutiny” should be applied on a case-by-case basis.
     The en banc decision comes nearly a year after oral arguments in Tyler v. Hillsdale County Sheriff’s Department, et al., with 10 of the Sixth Circuit judges concurring with the lead opinion written by Judge Julia Smith Gibbons.
     Clifford Tyler spent nearly one month in a mental health institution following a devastating divorce in 1986 that left him suicidal.
     Tyler was involuntarily admitted to a mental institution by his daughters, but has not experienced a similar depressive episode since his release, and has received no further treatment for mental-health issues.
     However, Tyler is unable to buy a gun because of Section 922(g)(4) of Title 18, which prevents “mentally ill” individuals from owning guns.
     Although many states allow individuals to apply for relief from disability, Tyler’s home state of Michigan has no such process.
     Judge Gibbons’ opinion cited heavily from the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, which affirmed citizens’ rights to own firearms, but also pointed out that “prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill are ‘presumptively lawful.'”
     However, Gibbons stressed that “to rely solely on Heller‘s presumption here would amount to a judicial endorsement of Congress’s power to declare, ‘Once mentally ill, always so.’ This we will not do.”
     The majority determined that intermediate scrutiny — in which “the burden of justification … rests entirely on the State” — must be used to determine whether the ban is a reasonable fit for the objective of reducing suicides and gun violence at large.
     Gibbons was unmoved by the government’s mention of the 2007 school shooting at Virginia Tech as justification for the lifetime ban.
     “This is compelling evidence of the need to bar firearms from those currently suffering from mental illness and those just recently removed from an involuntary commitment,” she wrote. “It does not, however, answer why Congress is justified in permanently barring anyone who has been previously committed, particularly in cases like Tyler’s, where a number of healthy, peaceable years separate the individual from their troubled history.”
     The majority found that Section 922(g)(4) “imposes a lifetime ban on a fundamental constitutional right” and “more evidence than is currently before us is required to justify such a severe restriction.”
     “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,” Gibbons wrote. “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.”
     Judge Karen Nelson Moore authored the dissenting judges’ opinion, and argued that the court’s rejection of Second Amendment challenges made by felons is instructive in Tyler’s case.
     “[W]e have rejected Second Amendment challenges to 922(g)(1) without inquiry into means—end scrutiny,” she wrote. “Prohibitions on possession by the ‘mentally ill’ are included in the same sentence of Heller as prohibitions on possession by felons. Heller thus instructs that the Second Amendment is ‘specifically limited in the case of’ prohibitions on possession by the mentally ill.” (p. 55)
     While Moore agreed with the majority that intermediate scrutiny is appropriate when examining Tyler’s case, she found no need to remand to the district court.
     “In enacting 922(g)(4), ‘Congress permissibly created a broad statute’ with an ‘express intent to establish a ‘zero tolerance policy’ towards guns’ and individuals with a demonstrated history of mental illness,” Moore wrote. “Under intermediate scrutiny—and mindful of the context within which we evaluate this law—I believe that the government has demonstrated that 922(g)(4) is substantially related to Congress’s objectives of reducing the substantial homicide and suicide rates caused by firearms … [and] would therefore hold that 922(g)(4) is constitutional.”
     Among those joining in the dissent were Chief Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. and Judges Eric L. Clay, Richard Allen Griffin, and Jane Branstetter Stranch.

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