Gun controllers suffered a major defeat in a US Court of Appeals in mid-December when a three-judge panel struck down a federal law that barred persons with a history of mental illness from gun ownership.
The 3-0 decision could impact the gun rights of millions of Americans – particularly if the ruling’s logic is applied to other gun restrictions.
“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,” wrote Judge Danny J. Boggs of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
In the case, Michigan resident Clifford Charles Tyler sued the local sheriff’s department and the federal government because he was refused permission to purchase a gun in 2011. The request was denied because the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) found that Tyler had been committed to a mental institution for less than a month in 1986.
Tyler was committed to a mental institution in 1986 because his daughters feared he might be suicidal after a stressful divorce. Tyler has not had any mental problems since 1986.
The Tyler decision raises questions about the constitutionally of all laws restricting specific individuals from owning guns, University of Los Angeles law professor Adam Winkler told Bloomberg. The law also prevents convicted felons, people under 18, illegal aliens and persons convicted of drug offenses from buying guns.
In his appeal, Tyler alleged that a federal law, the NICS Improvement Amendments Act, violated the Second Amendment because it didn’t give people like him an adequate means of appealing decisions. Tyler’s attorneys also alleged that the Act violated Tyler’s right to due process which is granted by the Fifth Amendment.
The court did not find the background checks law unconstitutional. Instead, it found that some of the criteria the government uses to block purchases violates the standards set by a 2008 US Supreme Court ruling, DC v. Heller. That case was the first time the court ruled that the Second Amendment granted individuals the right to bear arms.
“Not all previously institutionalized persons are mentally ill at a later time, so the law is at least somewhat overbroad,” Boggs wrote.
One of the reasons the court ruled in Tyler’s favor was that Congress has refused to fund a program that would evaluate gun purchasers to see if they were fit to have their right restored. Tyler received a letter that stated he could not appeal until Michigan set up such a program.
“The letter did not mention that federal law allows Tyler to apply directly to ATF for relief but that Congress denied funding for a federal relief-from-disabilities program,” Boggs wrote. Boggs called Tyler’s predicament a Catch 22 situation because the law offers him relief but offers no mechanism to get that relief.
Boggs made it clear that he thinks the Heller decision does provide some room for government to restrict the right to bear arms. The Heller ruling, he said, indicates “that the Second Amendment right to possess firearms does not extend to all individuals — or, at least, that the state may at times limit that right for certain groups of individuals consistent with the Constitution”
The case was Tyler vs. Hillsdale County Sheriff’s Department.
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