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Second Amendment Protects Former Mental Institution Patient’s Right to Bear Arms

January 2, 2015
Western Michigan Federal Courts

Called an "important issue of first impression in the federal courts," the Sixth Circuit, in Tyler v. Hillsdale County Sheriff's Department held that the Second Amendment protects the right of some individuals "who have been committed to a mental institution" to possess a firearm. In so holding, the court reversed the District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

Twenty-eight years ago, Clifford Charles Tyler, then 45, was involuntarily committed to a mental institution for less than one month after an emotionally devastating divorce. His ex-wife took off with another man and depleted his finances. His daughters contacted police because they were scared for Mr. Tyler's condition. For example, Mr. Tyler would sit in the middle of the floor and pound his head. A state court involuntarily committed Mr. Tyler to a mental institution due to a risk of suicide.

Mr. Tyler is now 73 years old. He is remarried, maintains a close relationship with his daughters, and has no criminal record. In 2011, Mr. Tyler attempted to purchase a firearm, but the Hillsdale County Sheriff, following federal law, disallowed it because of Mr. Tyler's stint in the mental institution. Mr. Tyler filed a lawsuit, alleging that the federal law violates his rights under the Second Amendment.

The federal law in question prohibits an individual who has been committed to a mental institution from possessing a firearm. This same law prohibits illegal aliens, domestic violence misdemeanants, unlawful drug users, and drug addicts from possessing a firearm. States can become approved to allow for exceptions to this law, but Michigan, unlike some other states, does not have such a program.

Under the facts of Mr. Tyler's case, the Sixth Circuit found that the Second Amendment forbids the federal law discussed above. In other words, the Second Amendment protected Mr. Tyler's right to possess a firearm. The court applied a two-step analysis. First, as of 1791 (when the Bill of Rights was ratified) the Second Amendment protected some individuals' rights who were previously committed to mental institutions. Second, "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."

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