Federal Circuit Court Holds That Involuntary Mental Commitment Cannot Prevent A Person From Asserting His ‘Fundamental Right’ Of Gun Ownership

Posted on January 21, 2015

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided a case of first impression regarding a federal statute’s lifetime ban against gun ownership for any person who has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. For Second Amendment and constitutional law scholars Tyler v Hillsdale Co Sheriff’s Dep’t, ___F3d ___, (6th Cir, Dec 18, 2014), is a “must-read” case.

Clifford Tyler is a Michigan resident who, in 1985, became emotionally distraught when his wife of 23 years left him for another man. Adding insult to injury, Tyler’s wife cleaned out his bank accounts when she left. At that time Tyler experienced suicidal thoughts. As a result, in 1986, he was involuntarily committed to a mental institution and subsequently released less than one month later. According to the published opinion, Tyler had no substance abuse problem and never posed a risk to the public after his short confinement.

Nearly two decades after Tyler’s brief bout with depression, he attempted to purchase a firearm. His attempt, however, backfired when the Hillsdale County Sheriff’s Department advised him that he was ineligible to purchase a firearm because the FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) indicated that he previously had been committed to a mental institution. Tyler unsuccessfully appealed the denial to the FBI’s NICS section. NICS subsequently denied the appeal, asserting that 18 USC § 922(g)(4) mandates a lifetime ban against gun ownership for any person who “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution.”

Tyler filed suit in federal district court claiming that, “as applied” to him, the federal statute’s prohibition was unconstitutional under his Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.” Tyler argued this fundamental right was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in District of Columbia v Heller, 554 US 570 (2008). The federal district court dismissed Tyler’s case and Tyler appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Sixth Circuit reversed the federal district court’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings with the very clear implication that Tyler would get his gun.

In its opinion, the Sixth Circuit reviewed the limitations to Second Amendment rights. For example, the Second Amendment does not give everyone the right to possess all kinds of weapons, such as short-barreled shotguns. Further, it does not permit persons to carry firearms into schools and courthouses. The Sixth Circuit opinion emphasized that the “full breadth of the Second Amendment has not been determined.”

In arriving at its holding, the Sixth Circuit reasoned that the Government in this case fell short in carrying its burden of proof. The Government failed to demonstrate that the law as it existed in 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, barred persons who had been previously committed to a mental institution from possessing a gun. Joining a minority of federal circuits, the Sixth Circuit held that a court must review any statutory prohibition conflicting with the Second Amendment under a “strict scrutiny” approach. Application of a strict scrutiny review requires that the Government show that the law under challenge “furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.”

Interestingly, the Sixth Circuit stated that the decision to apply intermediate or strict scrutiny is “likely more important in theory than practice.” This is somewhat surprising given that the Government’s burden is greatly reduced in upholding a law under the intermediate level of scrutiny. However, the Sixth Circuit articulated that there are strong reasons for using the strict scrutiny approach in gun cases because the right to keep and bear arms is “a fundamental right necessary to our system of ordered liberty.”

The Sixth Circuit emphasized that the Second Amendment’s protection of our right to keep and bear arms has “boundaries that are defined by the Constitution,” not “defined by Congress.” Gun owners and gun rights enthusiasts undoubtedly will be encouraged by this decision. More importantly, however, the Sixth Circuit’s opinion creates precedent for future challenges to gun ownership.