In a stunning turn of events, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has determined that a federal statute precluding persons previously adjudicated mentally ill from owning guns may be unconstitutional under the Second Amendment.  Tyler v. Hillsdale County Sheriff’s Dept., Case No. 13-1876 (http://www.opn.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/16a0234p-06.pdf).

The statute at issue is the Gun Control Act.  The Act, at 18 USC § 922(g)(4), prohibits anyone “who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution” from possessing a firearm.  A Michigan resident, Clifford Tyler, challenged the statute as unconstitutional under the Second Amendment.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Tyler’s wife of 23 years ran away with another man, depleted his finances, and served him with divorce papers.  The ordeal left him emotionally devastated.  He was unable to sleep, and he sat at home in the middle of the floor pounding his head.  His children, who were worried about him, called the police, and the probate court had him examined by a psychologist.  Based on the psychologist’s recommendations, the probate court ordered that he be committed to a mental health institution for a month of treatment.

He has not received any sort of mental health treatment since.  A psychological evaluation from 2012 indicated that he presently does not suffer from any mental illness.  This evaluation was corroborated by records from his primary care physician, which also reported no signs of mental illness.  His psychologist concluded that his response to his divorce as a “brief reactive depressive episode,” but that he does not exhibit any signs of mental illness today.  Nevertheless, when Tyler tried to purchase a firearm a few years ago, he was informed by the local sheriff’s office that he was ineligible, due to his involuntary commitment to the mental institution 30 years ago.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals heard Mr. Tyler’s case en banc, meaning that the entire panel of Sixth Circuit judges decided the case.  (In most situations, only a three-judge panel decides an appellate case.)  The Court determined that it was required to apply an intermediate scrutiny standard of review, and sought to discern whether § 922(g)(4) is substantially related to a government interest.  It concluded that although the government had presented compelling evidence of the need to bar firearms from those currently suffering from mental illness and those just recently removed from involuntary commitment, it had failed to carry its burden of showing why Congress was justified in permanently barring anyone who has been previously committed, particularly in cases of individuals such as Mr. Tyler, who had demonstrated “a number of healthy, peaceable years separat[ing him] from [his] troubled history.”

The Court summed up its conclusions in this fashion:

“We cannot conclude, based on the current record, that the government has carried its burden 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.  There is no indication of the continued risk presented by people who were involuntarily committed many years ago and who have no history of intervening mental illness, criminal activity, or substance abuse.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded the case.  It instructed the district court to apply intermediate scrutiny to the challenged statute to determine its constitutionality as applied to Mr. Tyler.