Tyler v Hillsdale County Sheriff’s Department (6th Cir, No 13-1876, 15 September 2016)
A divided US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that a longstanding federal law banning people involuntarily committed to mental health institutions from owning a gun could violate the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.
Section 922(g) of the federal Gun Control Act prohibits certain groups of people from gun ownership, including convicted felons, habitual drug users and domestic violence perpetrators. Sub-section 922(g)(4) also prohibits anyone “who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been [involuntarily] committed to a mental institution”. In the past, Congress had a “relief-from-disabilities” program, in which members of these prohibited categories could apply to the Attorney General for the right to own a gun. This program was defunded in 1992, but Congress used financial incentives to encourage states to create their own relief-from-disabilities programs.
The plaintiff, 74-year-old Clifford Charles Tyler, is a resident of the state of Michigan, which does not have a relief-from-disabilities program. In 1985, Tyler was committed to a mental health institution for several weeks, before returning home and successfully holding a job for the next 18 years. Tyler had no further depressive episodes or mental health concerns of any kind. In 2011 he attempted to purchase a gun, but failed the FBI’s background check.
Tyler argued that given Michigan’s lack of a relief-from-disabilities program, section 922(g)(4) was unconstitutional because it was effectively a permanent ban on his Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. The District Court struck out Tyler’s claim based on the US Supreme Court decision of District of Columbia v Heller, 554 US 570 (2008), which held that the prohibition on the possession of firearms by convicted felons and the mentally ill was “presumptively lawful”. Tyler appealed against to the Court of Appeals.
The decision was split, with 10 judges in favour of reversing the District Court judgment and six against. Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, for the majority opinion, held that Heller did not foreclose section 922(g)(4) of the Gun Control Act from constitutional scrutiny, and that the decision in Heller “should not be used to enshrine a permanent stigma on anyone who has ever been committed to a mental institution for whatever reason”.
The Court used the means-end test of intermediate scrutiny to assess the constitutional validity of section 922(g)(4). This test required the government’s stated objective to be “significant, substantial, or important” and required a reasonable fit between this objective and the challenged regulation. The government’s objectives for the ban were to reduce crime and prevent suicide. The Court acknowledged that these objectives were “important”, but found that the government had not shown that the scope of section 922(g)(4) was in proportion to the interest served. The government provided evidence including studies showing that individuals who had been committed to a mental health facility had a much higher suicide risk. The Court found that this evidence focussed solely on the risk posed by those presently mentally ill and recently committed. The government therefore failed to provide sufficient evidence of the continuous risk of owing a gun to people previously committed to a mental health facility to justify a lifetime ban.
Judge Karen Nelson Moore dissented. In doing so she stated that the legislature was far better equipped than the judiciary to make sensitive public policy judgments about the dangers of carrying firearms and the manner in which to combat those risks.
Gun control and the right to bear arms continue to be sensitive issues in the United States, which has some of the highest rates of gun-related violence in the world. In the wake of the Orlando shootings in June, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the United States to “live up to its obligations to protect its citizens from the horrifyingly commonplace but preventable violent attacks that are the direct result of insufficient gun control”.
Appearing as amicus curiae, the States United to Prevent Gun Violence submitted that once Connecticut began preventing individuals with prior mental health commitments from purchasing firearms, the State saw a 54 percent reduction in rates of violent crime perpetuated by such individuals.
Yet many commentators dispute the correlation between mental illness and gun violence, and argue that those dealing with mental illness belong to a class of persons who are already stigmatised. Congress’s decision to no longer fund the relief-from-disabilities program effectively means that for an entire class of persons, the ability to exercise a constitutionally-protected right depends on which State they live in.
It was agreed by both parties that Tyler was no longer a risk to himself or anyone else, but this might not always be the case. Congress noted in a report that officials in the federal relief-from-disabilities program often found that even after spending hours investigating, there was no way to know with any certainty whether the applicant was still a danger to public safety. This case marks another challenge for the United States in finding the balance between protecting the right to bear arms, and preventing the devastating consequences of gun violence.
Rachel Walters is a General Member of the Melbourne University Law Review.