A divided en banc Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded a district court’s order dismissing a Second Amendment challenge to the Federal ban on gun ownership by “anyone who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution.”
Facts: In Tyler v. Hillsdale County Sheriff's Department, 837 F.3d 678, (6th Cir. 2016) Docket 13-1876 Clifford Tyler, 74, wanted to purchase a gun. He was rejected by the Hillsdale County Sheriff because he had been involuntarily committed for less than 30 days in the 1980’s. Despite a current clean bill of mental health, he was ineligible to own a gun under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4).
Tyler first took his case to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) who declined to review his petition for restoration of his right to own a firearm. He then turned to federal court seeking a declaratory judgment that § 922(g)(4) was unconstitutional as applied to him. The district court dismissed Tyler’s suit for failure to state claim.
While the federal law used to permit an applicant to apply to the Attorney General for an exception to the ban, the program was de-funded and left to the states. Michigan, Tyler’s home state didn’t fund the program, so Tyler had no recourse to a remedy.
The ruling sends the case back to the district court for further review. The 6th Circuit didn’t say whether the ban on gun ownership under these circumstances violates the Second Amendment. It did say that a person’s involuntary commitment doesn’t necessarily make them a danger today and with no way to challenge the statute, the federal ban may be too broad a sweep.
The court reviewed the Heller decision (District of Columbia v Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008)), which, while recognizing that the Second Amendment protected the right of law-abiding citizens to own firearms, it also recognized the right wasn’t unlimited and that the prohibition on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill were presumptively lawful.
The court said that because § 922(g)(4) doesn’t have a history of challenges, it would be wrong to simply agree that legislature has the power to permanently exclude individuals from gun ownership based on a past involuntary commitment. The court used a two-part approach to the matter:
· The ban places a burden on conduct protected under the Second Amendment as historically understood; and past decisions don’t support the position that individuals once committed due to mental illness are forever ineligible to purchase a firearm, and
· While the government has important interests in keeping guns out of the hands of those who are a danger to themselves and to others, a blanket, lifetime ban is too broad.
The court, in summing up the principle opinion, said “…ten of us would reverse the district court; six of us would not. And at least twelve of us agree that intermediate scrutiny should be applied, if we employ a scrutiny-based analysis.
The court sent the matter back with instructions to allow the government an opportunity to meet the demands of intermediate scrutiny, which requires the government to show that the challenged law must further and important government interest by means substantially related to that interest. The government can present evidence in support of the lifetime ban or additional evidence that, because Clifford Tyler currently presents a risk of harm to himself or others, the law is constitutional as applied to him.