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People Freed From Insane Asylums Don’t Forfeit Gun Rights, Court Rules

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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Individuals committed to mental health institutions may regain Second Amendments rights after their release, the full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

The court ruled 10-6 that Clifford Taylor, 74, could acquire a firearm despite a federal law banning individuals committed for mental health issues from buying guns. Taylor was committed following a hostile divorce in 1986 that left him suicidal. His term of commitment was brief, and he has had no mental health issues since.

Individuals with such a profile could apply for relief from the law. Congress “defunded this program, noting that reviewing applications was a ‘very difficult and subjective task which could have devastating consequences for innocent citizens if the wrong decision is made,’” in 1992. Some states went about the work Congress neglected and erected systems of their own. Nearly two dozen states, however, have not.

As UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh explains in the Washington Post, the 16 judges on the 6th Circuit divided into three groups in the decision.

Five judges found that the restriction on Taylor’s right to possess a firearm could pass constitutional muster if it survived intermediate scrutiny, which requires that the government demonstrate a law or regulation furthers an important interest by means substantially related to said interest. In this case, the government lawyers had to demonstrate that the restriction is a “reasonable fit” with the government’s interest in preventing violence or suicide — but they found government lawyers had failed to pass these tests. (RELATED: Post Orlando, SCOTUS To Review Controversial Gun Law)

Another five judges took the view that, once a person is found no longer to be a threat to himself or others, a ban on his possession of a firearm is flatly unconstitutional. The analysis was steeped deeply in D.C. v. Heller, the 2008 case which struck down most elements of Washington D.C.’s restrictive handguns law. These 10 judges together constituted the majority in the case.

A third five judge bloc argued that the Heller Court had determined that restrictions on firearms possession by the mentally ill was lawful, and that this fact posture would survive intermediate scrutiny anyway. One judge concluded that the Heller decision did not apply to individuals with previous commitments, the ban passes intermediate scrutiny anyway.

It is unclear if the government will appeal to the Supreme Court.

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