Sixth Circuit strikes down ban on gun ownership for those previously committed to mental institutions

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a federal law yesterday that prohibits a person who has been committed to a mental institution from owning a gun. Judge Boggs, writing for the Court, found that the law violated the Second Amendment. He was joined by Judges Siler and Gibbons in his opinion.

The case originated in Michigan with Clifford Charles Tyler, a 73-year-old man who was committed to a mental institution for about a month related to a depressive episode following his divorce in 1986. According to the opinion, Tyler has no criminal record or other reported mental health issues. He attempted to purchase a gun in 2011, but was not permitted because of this 1986 incident. Tyler's administrative appeal to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was denied because Michigan does not have a program in place to provide relief from disabilities for those unable to purchase firearms due to past mental health commitments.

The law provides that individuals who have been previously committed to mental institutions may apply for relief from disability so that they may purchase firearms. According to the opinion and the Wall Street Journal, the federal program governing relief from disability was defunded in 1992. In 2008 the government offered incentives to states to establish their own relief from disability programs, but not every state has done so. Michigan is a state without such a program.

In evaluating the case, the court undertook a strict scrutiny analysis of the law and found that while its purposes of protecting the community from crime and preventing suicide are compelling, the law is not sufficiently narrowly tailored to achieve them. The court found that while the part of the statute that prohibits gun ownership by those who have "been adjudicated as a mental defective" is narrowly tailored, the provision that prohibits possession by individuals who were previously committed to a mental institution was not. The court cited the fact that "relief from disability" programs exist as evidence that not everyone who was previously committed is currently dangerous, as those programs were designed to determine whether someone should be permitted to own a gun. The court thus found that provision of the statute unconstitutional under the Second Amendment.