While everyone except the most zealous of gun rights activists has gone along with the general idea that there can be exceptions to who may own firearms among the American citizenry, there has been a growing concern in the gun-owning community that those exceptions may be too broad, and that a clarification of the exclusions is long overdue. Per federal law, owning guns is prohibited to those who are felons, drug addicts, under the age of 18, and also to those persons who have been ordered by the court to a mental institution. Those seem like reasonable exclusions to many people, but a significant, long-standing problem is that they’ve been applied…because that is how the law is written…in what is essentially an “all or nothing” fashion. For example, if one is a convicted felon, he is prohibited from owning a firearm; it matters not if the felony conviction occurred twenty years beforehand, or if it was for a non-violent offense – all that matters, per the statute, is that one is a felon.
However, in the latest of what has been a recent string of gun-owner-friendly court decisions, a U.S. appeals court has deemed unconstitutional the part of the federal law that denies ownership to one who has been committed to a mental facility by the court. A three-judge panel of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio just recently ruled in favor of a 73-year-old Michigan resident, Clifford Tyler, who was denied a gun purchase because he had been institutionalized back in 1986. Seems fairly cut and dried, does it not? Well, there’s a little more to the story, and it is this “little more” that the appeals court found so compelling to the favor of Mr. Tyler that they ruled unanimously on his behalf. When most of us hear of someone being ordered to a mental institution, we tend to think of a person who has particularly distinct problems and who is/was likely there for a not-insignificant period of time; these, however, were not the circumstances of Mr. Tyler’s institutionalization. Back in 1986, following a divorce, Clifford Tyler experienced related emotional distress and was placed in a facility for about a month – that’s it. However, as with the case of the person who is convicted of a relatively minor felony, Tyler found himself permanently barred from ever lawfully owning a gun because of a single, month-long stay in a mental health facility nearly thirty years before his attempt to purchase a weapon. Writing for the appeals court’s panel, Judge Danny Boggs cut to the heart of the issue when he declared, “The government’s interest in keeping firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill is not sufficiently related to depriving the mentally healthy, who had a distant episode of commitment, of their constitutional rights.”
Judge Boggs nails down the problem precisely. If Mr. Tyler’s last 30 years had been characterized by regular institutionalizations, or something more relevant than “a distant episode of commitment,” the application of the letter of the federal law in that case would strike most as being appropriate. However, the prohibition against Tyler, given the circumstances, seems unfair, especially in light of the immutable truth…immutable despite the efforts of so many to mute it…that the Second Amendment to the Constitution does not outline a privilege, but a right, and rights in a nation for which liberty serves as its permanent foundation should be withheld from citizens for only the most grievous of transgressions against society. It is good to see that the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals got this right, and that Mr. Tyler will finally get his gun.
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