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Case puts spotlight on gun ownership, mental illness

A federal court ruling upholding gun rights for people who had a past mental illness is being closely watched as a potential Supreme Court test case.

A federal court ruling upholding gun rights for people who had a past mental illness is being closely watched as a potential Supreme Court test case.

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in Tyler v. Hillsdale County Sheriff's Department that a "strict scrutiny" test should be applied to a gun ownership case, potentially invalidating a federal law that restricts gun ownership by someone "adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution"

According to court documents, Clifford Tyler, now 73, was committed to a Michigan mental institution for about a month in 1985 after suffering issues following a divorce. After he was released and returned to work, Tyler had no other instances of being committed.

Tyler applied for a gun permit in 2011 but he was denied under a federal law that excludes ownership for people with any past history of mental illness unless they fall into a category of exception.

However, Tyler wasn't eligible for a federal-state program that gives some people an exception because Michigan doesn't take part in it. Tyler also didn't qualify for a federally based program because Congress has refused to fund the program since 1992 and it doesn't pay government workers to review applications for people like Tyler.

Judge Danny Boggs wrote the 48-page opinion in the case and he faulted Congress in part for Tyler's situation.

"This is case presents an important issue of first impression in the federal courts: whether a prohibition on the possession of firearms by a person 'who has been committed to a mental institution' violates the Second Amendment," Boggs said. "Because Tyler's complaint validly states a violation of the Second Amendment, we reverse and remand."

"Congress, in its efforts to keep firearms away from the mentally ill, may cast a wider net than is necessary to perfectly remove the harm," Boggs continued.

He found that Tyler was stuck in a "Catch-22" situation because Congress wouldn't fund the federal program Tyler needed for gun ownership because Congress wanted Michigan to offer a similar program. When Michigan refused, Tyler was left without options.

"An individual's ability to exercise a "fundamental righ[t] necessary to our system of ordered liberty … cannot turn on such a distinction," Boggs found, citing the Supreme Court's McDonald decision about gun rights.

For now, the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court will allow the federal government to dispute claims that Tyler isn't mentally ill, and then the case will head to a federal court to allow Tyler to claim he has a right to gun ownership.

In broader terms, Judge Tyler's opinion strikes down the part of the federal law that bars anyone with a history of mental illness from owing a gun, saying it fails the strict scrutiny test protecting fundamental constitutional rights.

A second judge in the case, Julia Smith Gibbons, agreed with the overall reasoning but didn't concur with Tyler's use of a strict scrutiny standard.

"I write separately to express my view that we should avoid extensive discussion of the degree of scrutiny to be applied and the ultimate application of strict scrutiny. … I have substantial doubts as to whether strict scrutiny applies in this particular context — especially considering the general trend of our sister circuits it is unnecessary to reach the issue," Gibbons said.

"For one thing, both parties agree that intermediate scrutiny is the appropriate standard. For another, Tyler has a viable Second Amendment claim under either degree of scrutiny; thus it seems most appropriate to assume, without deciding, that intermediate scrutiny applies here," she added.

The case is seen as having potential for Supreme Court review because it is the first to recommend the invalidation of a federal gun law since 2008, when the Court clarified its stance on such laws in the Heller case.

Constitution Daily contributor Lyle Denniston, writing for SCOTUSblog, explained the potential challenge.

"Since the Justices' ruling in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, finding in the Second Amendment a guarantee of a right to have a gun for personal use, at least in some circumstances, federal courts have struggled with how to apply that ruling in specific cases testing specific gun laws.  Before the Sixth Circuit ruled, however, none had declared that gun laws should be judged by a 'strict scrutiny,' test," he said.

For now, the ball is in the Justice Department's court about how it wants to proceed in what will be a closely watched case.

Philadelphia's National Constitution Center is the first and only nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to the most powerful vision of freedom ever expressed: the U.S. Constitution. Constitution Daily, the Center's blog, offers smart commentary and conversation about constitutional issues in the news, drawing insights from America's history and a variety of expert contributors.