Unconstitutional: Federal gun law

It might not get the news coverage it deserves with everything else going on at the moment, but the unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati against a federal gun law is a very big deal.  The court held that the federal ban on gun ownership by people who have been committed to a mental institution is an unconstitutional violation of the Second Amendment.  Rulings of that caliber (if you’ll pardon the pun) don’t come down all that often.  The previous instance was the Supreme Court’s Heller ruling against Washington D.C.’s firearms ban in 2008, which those on both sides of the gun control debate would agree was a very big deal.

Today’s ruling was prompted by the efforts of 73-year-old Clifford Charles Tyler to purchase a gun.  His application for a permit was denied because he spent one month in a mental institution, in 1986, due to emotional problems following his divorce.  (According to the background material in the 6th Circuit Court decision, his ex-wife allegedly cleaned out his bank accounts and ran off with another man, leaving Tyler so despondent that he wept incessantly, couldn’t sleep, and had suicidal thoughts.  He was committed for treatment after his fearful daughters called the police.  He never did anything more violent than pound on his own head in despair.)

The law provides individuals with such troubles in their distant past with an opportunity to prove they have recovered from their disability, but unfortunately federal funding for programs to demonstrate relief was terminated over 20 years ago, and Tyler’s home state of Michigan never set up a program of its own.  Tyler, and other Michigan residents, were therefore left with a theoretical concession to their Second Amendment rights that was impossible to take advantage of in practice.  He passed screenings by both his physician and a psychologist, who agreed that his depressive episode decades previously had been an isolated incident, and he has since remarried, but none of that was good enough to satisfy the federal gun law.

That didn’t pass muster with Judge Danny Boggs, who drew a sharp distinction between the need to keep guns away from the mentally ill, and an unconstitutional burden placed upon rehabilitated individuals with brief periods of difficulty in their distant past.  Somehow I suspect gun-control zealots will spectacularly fail to draw that distinction, and parody the 6th Circuit Court’s decision as “putting guns in the hands of madmen,” which they claim is an unwritten bullet point in the hidden agenda of the National Rifle Association.  (Once again, pardon the pun.)

This attitude would seem difficult to square with the Left’s general enthusiasm for restoring the rights of criminals as quickly as possible – especially their voting rights – on the grounds that no one’s life should be permanently ruined for anything less than the most heinous offense.  The gun-control movement will cast those principles aside in order to argue that public safety is unacceptably compromised by allowing a 73-year-old man who spent a month in an institution for emotional distress when he was 45 to buy a gun… something even the law as written would have permitted, if the government had given him a reasonable opportunity to demonstrate his rehabilitation.

Judge Boggs went pretty hard on the regulatory trap Tyler was caught in, comparing it to the bureaucratic nightmares satirized in the novel “Catch-22.”  Boggs wrote that “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.”  The cooperation in question involves states contributing information to the federal background-check system, in exchange for which grants would be issued to finance various state anti-crime programs.  The fact that federal law allows previously-committed non-felons to petition for gun licenses clearly indicates that the government doesn’t think they’re dangerous enough to warrant permanent suspension of their Second Amendment rights, which means setting up a system that makes it effectively impossible for them to actually petition for the relief they are theoretically entitled to is constitutionally unacceptable.

The new decision quotes the Supreme Court’s Heller decision extensively – see, it was a very big deal! – comtrasting the restrictions that Tyler ran afoul of against various other constitutionally acceptable restrictions, including the one that forbids illegal aliens to possess firearms.  “In light of Heller’s characterization of the right at issue as one of ‘law-abiding, responsible citizens’ and case law permitting Congress to distinguish among citizens, aliens, and illegal aliens, these holdings are not difficult,” writes Boggs.  Oh, I don’t know about that, Your Honor.  Give Emperor Obama some more time to wipe out the distinction between legal citizens and illegal aliens with his magic memorandums, and it might become very difficult indeed.  How long will it be before one of Obama’s new above-the-law imported super-constituents becomes embroiled in a gun case?

Boggs also draws distinctions between the restriction struck down by his court and a variety of broadly similar gun restrictions by noting that the permissible ones are temporary.  The Second Amendment can endure temporary restrictions, but the permanent loss of gun rights is a very serious business, which cannot be justified by vague concerns about increased risk.  “It is certain that there is a non-zero chance that a previously institutionalized person will commit gun violence in the future,” writes Boggs, “but that is true of all classes of persons.”  Furthermore, the nature of the bureaucratic trap Tyler found himself snared in amounted to disparate treatment under federal law for an entire class of people based on “whether they reside in a state that has chosen to participate in a joint federal-state administrative scheme.”

The overall thrust of the 6th Circuit’s decision is to affirm that the Second Amendment, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, stakes out some very valuable individual real estate, where the government must fear to tread.  Gun rights remain a contentious issue because the government cites the needs of public safety when it restricts the ownership of firearms, but Boggs challenges the government to provide compelling reasons for those infringements, especially when they are permanent.  He finds it unsurprising that legal fallout from the Heller decision is still raining down, since that ruling was only handed down six years ago, but notes that “provisions of our Constitution do not lose their force even with the passage of decades.”  Oooh, that’s not going to go over well with the “living Constitution” crowd – a group that overlaps rather heavily with gun-control zealots.

The Wall Street Journal captures some reactions that suggest the Tyler case could have ramifications for other gun laws:

Lucas McCarthy, Mr. Tyler???s lawyer, called the ruling ???a forceful decision to protect Second Amendment rights,??? and said he hoped it that it would have ???a significant impact on the jurisprudence in the area of gun rights.???

[…] Adam Winkler, a Second Amendment expert and law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the ruling could give momentum to the gun-rights movement. ???I wouldn???t be surprised to see legal challenges to other parts of the [federal gun] law now,??? he said.

Mr. Winkler also said the ruling could prompt Republicans in Congress to move to set up a new ???relief from disabilities??? program that would allow people to prove they are fit to own guns.

The Justice Department has gone into sourpuss mode, offering no response when asked for comment by the Journal.  That’s a pretty big clue that this decision was a defeat for the gun-control lobby, and it will probably spawn further defeats in the months to come.