Appeals court finds federal firearms law constitutionally flawed

GUNSIn a major victory for Second Amendment advocates, the Sixth Circuit court of appeals has sustained an as-applied constitutional challenge to the federal firearms dispossession law, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).  While the particular provision of that law at issue in Tyler v. Hillsdale County Sheriffs Department is § 922(g)(4), the subsection prohibiting firearms possession by anyone “who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution,” the court’s broad holding and analytical approach will be of considerable interest to those watching developments under the felon-in-possession subsection of the law, § 922(g)(1).

Clifford Charles Tyler, a 73-year-old resident Hillsdale County, Michigan, had been involuntarily committed for less than one month in 1986, shortly after an emotionally devastating divorce, based on a risk of suicide that concerned his children.  Since that time he had worked steadily and had had no problems with law enforcement or mental health issues.  Tyler sought a declaratory judgment against enforcement of the federal firearms law based on this brief dated commitment.  He pointed out that in Congress had authorized states to provide relief from this provision as an inducement to cooperate with federal authorities, but that Michigan was one of about half the states that had chosen not to do so.  Because Congress has defunded the federal relief provision, 18 U.S.C. § 925(c), Tyler had no forum in which to request a waiver of the “committed to a mental institution” provision of the law as applied to him, and this he claimed resulted in a violation of his Second Amendment rights.  The court of appeals agreed.

In a lengthy opinion surveying the history of the prohibition on gun possession by the mentally ill, as well as Second Amendment caselaw under § 922(g) since D.C. v. Heller, the court determined that 1) Tyler’s possession was not categorically unprotected under § 922(g); and 2) the law as applied to him could not be justified under the applicable strict scrutiny test.  The court relied upon Congress’ evident intent that relief should be available from §(g)(4)’s prohibition as confirming that the “committed to a mental institution” provision of §(g)(4) was not “narrowly tailored” to achieve the government’s valid purpose in prohibiting gun possession by the mentally ill:

Under this scheme, whether Tyler may exercise his right to bear arms depends on whether his state of residence has chosen to accept the carrot of federal grant money and has implemented a relief program. His right thus would turn on whether his state has taken Congress’s inducement to cooperate with federal authorities in order to avoid losing anti-crime funding. An individual’s ability to exercise a “fundamental righ[t] necessary to our system of ordered liberty,” McDonald, 561 U.S. at 778, cannot turn on such a distinction. Thus, § 922(g)(4) lacks narrow tailoring as the law is applied to Tyler. The following review of the circuits’ post-Heller jurisprudence confirms this. We hold that the complaint, as alleged, states a violation of the Second Amendment.

The Tyler court’s analytical approach would seem relevant in cases challenging the application of the conviction-based prohibition of § (g)(1), which like (g)(4) gives effect to state relief provisions.  See 18 USC § 921(a)(20).  Individuals convicted of non-violent crimes who can demonstrate that they are “no more dangerous than a typical law-abiding citizen,” and who have no reasonable possibility of relief under state law, may be able to demonstrate the same Second Amendment over-breadth that won the day for Mr. Tyler. Indeed, one federal court has already upheld such a claim, as described in this earlier post.  More such challenges are wending their way through the courts, and Alan Gura who is spearheading this litigation has promised us a report early in the New Year.