Court: Federal law barring firearm purchases of formerly committed people is unconstitutional

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2nd Amendment Rights

Clifford Charles Tyler went through an “emotionally devastating divorce” 23 years ago, where his then-wife of 23 years allegedly ran away with another man and depleted their finances.

After being found pounding his head into the floor at his home, Tyler was committed to a mental institution, to prevent the risk of suicide. Less than one month later, he was released. He rejoined the workforce and has since had no history of mental illness. He remarried in 1999.

In 2011, Tyler, now 73, attempted to purchase a firearm. The Sheriff’s Office in Hillside County, Michigan denied his request, citing a federal law prohibiting firearm purchases to people who have been “committed to a mental institution.”

He filed a federal lawsuit in May 2012, which the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan subsequently dismissed.

On December 18, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit unanimously reversed the decision, finding that the blanket prohibition violated the Second Amendment.

The decision marks the first time since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, when the Court ruled 5-4 that the Second Amendment confers “an individual right to keep and bear arms,” that an appeals court has ruled against a federal restriction on firearm purchases.

“We have reviewed scores of opinions presenting post-Heller Second Amendment challenges, and we do not believe that any other court of appeals in a reasoned opinion has reviewed a firearm restriction as severe as this one — one that forever deprives a law-abiding, non-violent, non-felon of his Second Amendment rights.”

The Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Heller contained a variety of caveats, including that the Second Amendment protects only “the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens,” and that “nothing in [its] opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill.”

The 6th Circuit’s 46-page opinion includes an extensive analysis of the other categories of people prohibited from purchasing firearms, each of which is distinguished from the prohibition against people who were previously committed. Of particular note, the 6th Circuit distinguished this category from the prohibition against people who are “mentally ill,” since this latter category targets people who still pose an ongoing safety risk.

Of particular concern for the Court was that the prohibition for people who were committed is practically permanent, as opposed to, for example, people with a history of committing domestic violence misdemeanors, who can have their convictions expunged.

As the 6th Circuit saw it, the permanent nature of the prohibition imposed an impermissible infringement on Second Amendment rights. To support its contention, it pointed to the history of Congress’ so-called “relief from disabilities” program.

Under federal law, people denied the right to purchase firearms because of a prior history of being civilly committed may apply to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to have their rights restored. Congress, however, defunded this program in 1992.

After the massacre at Virginia Tech, Congress passed the (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) Improvement Amendments Act of 2007, in order to improve information sharing between federal and state government regarding people restricted from purchasing firearms. One of the law’s provisions hinged certain federal funding on a requirement that states accept federal funds to set up their own “relief from disabilities program,” to restore firearm possession rights to those who “will not be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety” and whose “granting of the relief would not be contrary to the public interest.”

However, only roughly half the states have since set up these programs. Michigan, Tyler’s home state, has not, which the 6th Circuit found particularly problematic.

“Under this scheme, whether Tyler may exercise his right to bear arms depends on whether his state of residence has chosen to accept the carrot of federal grant money and has implemented a relief program,” the Court stated. “His right thus would turn on whether his state has taken Congress’s inducement to cooperate with federal authorities in order to avoid losing anti-crime funding. An individual’s ability to exercise a ‘fundamental righ[t] necessary to our system of ordered liberty’ cannot turn on such a distinction.”

The federal government also prohibits firearm possession for convicted felons, fugitives, domestic violence misdemeanants, unlawful users of controlled substances, drug addicts, illegal aliens, people dishonorably discharged from the Armed forces, renouncers of U.S. citizenship and persons subject to certain domestic restraining orders.