Constitutional Law

Divided 6th Circuit says gun ban for the involuntarily committed could violate 2nd Amendment

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A federal law that indefinitely bans gun ownership for people previously committed to mental health treatment facilities could violate the Second Amendment, an en banc federal appellate court found Thursday.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal opinion involves Clifford C. Tyler, a Michigan resident who in 2011 failed a gun background check because he was committed to a mental health institution more than two decades earlier, the Wall Street Journal and Courthouse News Service report.

The 1986 committal came from a probate court, after Tyler’s wife left him for another man and spent all of his money, according to the article. Tyler’s daughters contacted police because they feared he was a danger to himself and others. Tyler, 74, underwent psychological and substance-abuse evaluations in 2012, which showed no evidence of mental illness or substance abuse problems, the newspaper reports.

That same year, he sued the U.S. attorney general and the Hillsdale County sheriff, alleging that the Gun Control Act of 1968 created a permanent ban on his constitutional rights.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives can restore someone’s rights to own a firearm, if it’s determined that wouldn’t be problematic for public interest, according to the Wall Street Journal. However, Congress defunded the review program during the 1990s. Congress in 2008 authorized federal grants for states to update background records and review applications by people seeking to legally own firearms. Thirty-one states have such programs in place, but Michigan isn’t one of them, according to the opinion.

“None of the government’s evidence squarely answers the key question at the heart of this case: Is it reasonably necessary to forever bar all previously institutionalized persons from owning a firearm? But perhaps the biggest problem for the government is Congress’s most recent answer to this very question: No, it is not,” Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote for the majority in the 10-6 decision.

The opinion reversed and remanded the case back to the district court to determine the statute’s constitutionality as applied to Tyler.

Judge Karen Nelson Moore authored a dissent, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that prohibitions on gun possessions for the mentally ill and felons are legal. Chief Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. and Judges Eric L. Clay, Richard Allen Griffin, and Jane Branstetter Stranch joined the dissent.

“Under intermediate scrutiny—and mindful of the context within which we evaluate this law—I believe that the government has demonstrated that (the federal law) is substantially related to Congress’s objectives of reducing the substantial homicide and suicide rates caused by firearms,” Moore wrote in her dissent. “I would therefore hold that is constitutional under intermediate-scrutiny review without any need to remand to the district court for further evidentiary development.”

In 2014, a three-judge panel from the 6th Circuit overturned (PDF) a U.S. district court order dismissing Tyler’s case.

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