Federal Appeals Court Rules Mental Health Ban on Gun Ownership Might Violate Second Amendment


On September 15, 2016, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the provisions of the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 banning people who have been committed for mental health reasons from ever owning a firearm might violate the Second Amendment.

In the case of Clifford Charles Tyler v. Hillsdale County Sheriff’s Department, the Court ruled that Tyler’s Second Amendment right may have been violated when he was denied the purchase of a firearm in 2011 after failing a background check that revealed a brief involuntary mental health commitment back in 1986. Tyler admitted that he underwent an emotionally devastating divorce in 1985 and that he was involuntarily committed because of a risk that he might be suicidal.

Since then, he has undergone psychological evaluation and received a clean bill of mental health, and has had no further episodes of depression.

At issue is 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4). Specifically, the statute provides:

It shall be unlawful for any person . . . who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution . . . to ship or transport in interstate or foreign commerce, or possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition; or to receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.

Tyler filed suit in federal court, seeking a declaratory judgment that § 922(g)(4) is unconstitutional as applied to him after a review of the denial was declined by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Tyler asserted that the Second Amendment forbids Congress from permanently prohibiting firearm possession by currently healthy individuals who were long ago committed to a mental institution.

Relying upon language in the Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), that held the longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill are “presumptively lawful,” the district court reasoned that particular language foreclosed such claims and dismissed his lawsuit for failing to state a claim without ever reaching the merits of the case.

However, the appeals court, in its analysis of Heller, reasoned that the Supreme Court reserved for later cases an exploration of the historical justifications for its “enumerated prohibitions” and the particular language was therefore not conclusive.

In its opinion, the appeals court stated that federal regulations make clear that “committed to a mental institution” applies only to persons who are “involuntarily committed by an appropriate judicial authority following due process safeguards.”

The question before the Court to consider was therefore, “is it reasonably necessary to forever bar all previously institutionalized persons from owning a firearm?”

In an argument against the permanent ban, it was shown that previously the government did not always consider the ban to be permanent and indeed had a program in place to restore an individual’s rights, a “relief-from-disabilities” program.

However, in 1992, Congress defunded the review program that allowed the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to restore the rights of individuals that could demonstrate they were not a danger to public safety and whose possession of a firearm would not be “contrary to the public interest.”

Furthermore, in 2008, Congress enacted the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 which authorized federal grants to states that created relief-from-disabilities programs that followed the federal program. The Court reasoned that Congress, by enacting this act recognized that mental illness is not a permanent impediment to gun ownership and permitted persons disqualified on the basis of mental illness to prove that they no longer were a threat to society.

Following the grant program, thirty-one states instituted their own relief-from-disabilities program to review applications by people seeking to have their rights restored. Unfortunately, Tyler lives in Michigan, one of the states that has not implemented any such review process.

In its analysis of this case, the Court stated that the government must establish a reasonable fit between its important objectives of public safety and suicide prevention and its permanent ban on the possession of firearms by persons adjudicated to be mentally unstable.

The Court reasoned, grouping together everyone with mental issues with those individuals that had a distant episodic issue resulting in a commitment to a mental institution, failed 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,” considering its acceptance of relief from other states for like individuals.

In its decision, the Court wrote:

Thus, we conclude that Tyler has a viable claim under the Second Amendment and that the government has not justified a lifetime ban on gun possession by anyone who has been “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution,” 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4).

The case was remanded back to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this Court’s opinion.

Upon remand, if the government does not challenge Tyler’s factual allegation that he is a non-dangerous individual, which in oral arguments before the appeals court the government stated it had no reason to dispute that assertion, then the district court must find the law as applied to Mr. Tyler is unconstitutional.

The Sixth Circuit covers Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee and its opinions are binding only within that district.

To read the entire 62-page opinion, click here to download and open the document.

What are your thoughts? Should you be permanently banned from owning a firearm for a mental health episode that happened in the past, even though you pass a current mental health evaluation?

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