Thursday, December 18, 2014
The Sixth Circuit ruled today in Tyler v. Hillsdale County Sheriff's Department that the federal ban on gun possession by a person "who has been committed to a mental institution" violates the Second Amendment.
The ruling is the first to address this particular provision, and it's the first to strike a federal ban on a particular category of would-be gun owners. The ruling's notable, too, because it applies strict scrutiny, even as both parties agreed that intermediate scrutiny applied.
The court, using its two-step approach to Second Amendment questions, held first that the federal ban on a person "who has been committed to a mental institution," 18 U.S.C. Sec. 922(g)(4), "falls within the scope of the Second Amendment right, as historically understood." That is: while the Second Amendment historically did not protect the right to bear arms by the mentally ill, "[w]e are not aware of any other historical source that suggests that the right to possess a gun was denied to persons who had ever been committed to a mental institution, regardless of time, circumstance, or present condition." (Emphasis added.)
The court next applied strict scrutiny and held that while the government's interest was "compelling," the flat ban was not narrowly tailored to meet it. In particular, the court said that the federal government failed to fund an opt-out provision for Section 922, leaving a formerly institutionalized person without a federal opportunity to show that he or she no longer poses a danger and should no longer be covered by Section 922(g)(4). Moreover, the federal conditioned grant program--which would allow an individual to prove to his or her state the he or she is no longer dangerous and should no longer be covered by Section 922(g)(4), so long as the state participates in the federal program (about half do)--leaves a person's fundamental right to bear arms up to his or her state. That's no good. The court:
Under this scheme, whether [a person] 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. 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. Thus, Section 922(g)(4) lacks narrow tailoring as the law is applied to [the petitioner].
The court struck the provision even as it recognized that no other court has struck any other ban on guns for any other category of person under Section 922(g)(4). In particular, the court recognized that no court has struck a ban on guns for undocumental aliens, domestic-violence misdemeanants, persons under a certain age, persons subject to certain domestic-protection orders, and persons who are "an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance." The court distinguished the committed-to-a-mental-institution category, however, because "its prohibition is permanent; it applies potentially to non-violent individuals; it applies potentially to law-abiding individuals; and it punishes potentially non-violent conduct."
The court surveyed the approaches to the Second Amendment in the other circuits--mostly some form of intermediate scrutiny--but applied strict scrutiny. This was surprising and unnecessary, given that both parties agreed that intermediate scrutiny applied, and, as the concurrence argued, the petitioner would have won under intermediate scrutiny, too.
According to the court's analysis, Congress could avoid the result simply by funding the federal opt-out program and giving previously institutionalized individuals an opportunity to show that they are no longer dangerous and should no longer be subject to the ban in Section 922(g)(4).