A decision this week out of the Court of Appeals of the Sixth Circuit has added fuel to a new front to the 2nd Amendment debate. Under federal law, certain groups, or classes of people, are barred from owning a firearm. Those groups include convicted felons, fugitives and people with a prior history of domestic batteries. The case decided this week in the Sixth Circuit deals with a provision in the law which bars people who have been committed to a mental institution from owning a firearm. The law allows an individual to appeal for relief from the prohibitions imposed by this law to the Attorney General of the United States. The Attorney General has delegated the authority to investigate such petitions to the Director of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. This appeal process is called the “relief from disabilities program.” The law is pretty detailed about what an individual is required to provide in such a petition to the director of the ATF. The law requires that the petitioner provide copies of the court order mandating commitment to a mental institution, and all other medical records having anything to do with the person’s mental condition along with letters of recommendation from at least three people along with a written consent allowing the Attorney General to obtain any medical records. The law then sets out in detail what the Director of the ATF is supposed to do when it comes to making a decision as to whether to grant relief from this law. However, in 1992 Congress defunded the relief from disabilities program. The defunding of this program has continued since then. In 1998 Congress authorized federal grants to help states pay for determining which individuals may own a gun and to help states pay to provide this information to the federal government. However, in order for a state to qualify for these federal funds, each state has to show the federal government that they have an appeal process similar to the relief from disabilities program which gives people who are barred from owning a gun the right to an appeal which allows their case to be considered for relief from the state’s prohibition. About half of the states have established such relief processes. Michigan is one of the states that has not. This is where this case comes from.
Seventy three year old Clifford Charles Tyler had been involuntarily confined to a mental institution by a Michigan Court in 1986 because he was suicidal. Tyler had been served with divorce papers by his wife who had been cheating on him. The opinion details in great length the seriousness of the mental issues that Tyler was dealing with and the extensive steps that were taken to treat him. In 1999 Tyler remarried and in 2012 his psychologist reported that he has fully recovered from his mental condition and that he can no longer detect any mental illness.
In 2011 Tyler attempted to purchase a gun but was denied the right to do so because his name showed up on an FBI data base as someone who had previously been committed to a mental institution. He appealed this determination by the FBI but his appeal was denied. Tyler was informed that because Michigan has not established a relief process, there’s nothing that the federal government can do for him.
In 2012 Tyler filed suit in Federal Court alleging violations of the Second Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment and violations of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Basically Tyler claimed that the prohibition is overly broad and that he was not afforded the right to a hearing. The District Court dismissed his case and Tyler appealed to the Court of Appeals.
The basic question on appeal was whether Congress has the power to prohibit anyone who has ever been committed to a mental institution from owning a firearm. The Court applied an Intermediate Scrutiny Test to determine the validity of the statute. This means that the law has to further an important government interest by means that are substantially related to the important government interest. In it’s opinion the court agreed that the government as an important government interest in keeping guns out of the hands of people who have a mental illness or have recently had mental issues. However, the government failed to show that the means used are substantially related to this interest when the law permanently bars anyone who has ever been found to have a mental illness from ever owning a gun. In this case Tyler’s commitment had been years earlier and the evidence clearly established that he has recovered. The dismissal of his lawsuit has been reversed and sent back to the District Court so that his claims may be fully litigated.
Cases involving the Second Amendment continue to be a topic of legal challenges. Last week the Court of Appeals of the Third Circuit restored gun rights to individuals who had been previously convicted of minor crimes. As state and local authorities try to enact laws to limit gun violence. legal challenges keep springing up which will help define the limits to such actions and the implications of the Second Amendment.
James Dimeas is an award winning Chicago criminal defense attorney and author with more than 23 years of experience aggressively representing his clients against gun charges. If you have a gun case in Illinois, contact me in Chicago (312-229-5500), DuPage and Kane (630-504-2096) or Lake (847-696-6458) for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your legal options.
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