Losing Your Second for a Lifetime: Does Prior Involuntary Institutionalization Trigger a Lifelong Ban on Firearm Possession?

BACKGROUND

Federal law prohibits the possession of firearms by persons who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health institution by a state court. This ban, part of the “Gun Control Act” and codified at 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), also applies to people who have been convicted of a felony, convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, or have been dishonorably discharged from the United States Armed Forces, among others. However, federal law does not dictate for how long one may be banned from possessing a firearm—is it weeks? Months? Years? Decades?

Duy Mai was seventeen years old in 1999, when he was involuntarily committed to a mental health institution by a Washington court. His commitment spanned more than nine months to account for the court’s ruling that Mai was “mentally ill and dangerous.” Since his release in 2000, Mai has earned a GED, a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree. He is a father and asserts that he is “socially-responsible, well-balanced, and accomplished.” And, he argues, he no longer has a mental illness. Now he wants to buy a gun. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals says he may not.

THE ISSUE

Does 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4) impose a lifetime ban on firearm possession after involuntary institutionalization?

THE SPLIT

The Ninth and Third Circuits have held that, yes, involuntary institutionalization does trigger a lifelong ban on firearm possession. The Sixth Circuit has held that it does not.

In Mai v. United States (2020), the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Duy Mai’s claim. There, he argued that a lifelong imposition of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4) violated his Second Amendment rights. Some states have been able to grant their citizens relief from this ban through inquiries allowed under 34 U.S.C. § 40915 (“Authority to Provide Relief from Certain Disabilities with Respect to Firearms”),  but Washington’s program did not meet the robust requirements to make Mai eligible for such relief. Assuming arguendo that the lifetime ban burdened Mai’s Second Amendment right to bear arms, the Ninth Circuit applied intermediate scrutiny to his claim. The judges balanced the statutory objectives and any important governmental purpose of § 922(g)(4) with the substantial limitations it places on Mai’s freedoms. Citing to prior United States Supreme Court precedent, the judges concluded that the government’s important responsibilities to prevent suicide and crime outweighed any as-applied limitation on Mai’s right to possess a firearm. After all, the Court noted, this right is not unlimited. The Ninth Circuit also cited to its own prior ruling on 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9) from United States v. Chovan, where the court determined that a lifetime ban on gun ownership was appropriate for someone who had been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor “regardless of present-day rectitude.”

The Sixth Circuit used the same general framework as the Ninth Circuit but came to a different conclusion. Like Mai, the plaintiff in Tyler v. Hillsdale County Sheriff’s Department (2016), argued that a lifetime ban on firearm ownership violated his Second Amendment right since he no longer suffered from mental illness. Tyler had been involuntarily committed more than thirty years ago following a particularly emotional divorce. Also like Mai, Tyler conceded that the ban may be appropriate where a person continues to suffer, which was not true in his case. The Court applied intermediate scrutiny for the same reasons as cited in Mai—assuming, arguendo, that the Second Amendment right is burdened, the decision to lifetime ban must be substantially related to the stated government justifications. Unlike Mai, however, the Sixth Circuit did not consider a lifetime ban fit for the justifications. The government failed to show that there was a substantial relationship between the two primary justifications (suicide prevention and crime reduction) and the ban, according to the Court. As such, the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded for further application of as-applied intermediate scrutiny.

Like the Ninth Circuit, the Third Circuit also found that § 922(g)(4)’s lifetime ban passed muster. The plaintiff in Beers v. Attorney General of the United States (2020) was involuntarily committed to a mental health institution in Pennsylvania in 2005. He had expressed suicidal ideations to his parents and had also used a firearm to demonstrate these ideations. His mother noted that she feared his access to a firearm gave him the means to complete any plans to end his life. The state twice renewed Beers’s commitment before his final release in 2006. Not long after discharge, Beers attempted to purchase a firearm. His application was denied once a background check revealed his prior involuntary commitment.  Beers challenged this denial in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, but that court dismissed the matter for failure to state a claim. Upon appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed the denial.

In a departure from the approaches taken by the Ninth and Sixth Circuits, the Third Circuit concluded that Beers’s Second Amendment rights were not substantially burdened, and therefore, the court did not apply intermediate scrutiny. The Third Circuit applied the framework it had established in Binderup v. Attorney General of the United States (2016), which requires a challenger to the federal firearm ban to “(1) identify the traditional justifications for excluding from Second Amendment protections the class of which he appears to be a member, and then (2) present facts about himself and his background that distinguish his circumstances from those of persons in the historically barred class.” Only if a litigant can demonstrate both elements will their rights be considered burdened, triggering intermediate scrutiny. In addition to outlining historical notions of mental illness in society, the Third Circuit also looked to pre-Second Amendment literature cited in Binderup. There, the court referenced The Address and Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention, of the State of Pennsylvania, to Their Constituents (1787). The Address notes that a citizen would be ineligible to bear arms if they were a “real danger of public injury.” The court interpreted this to extend to someone who creates a real danger to the self as well. In returning to Binderup’s logic, the Third Circuit concluded that Beers could not establish how he could distinguish himself from this class (mentally ill individuals). Binderuprecognized neither the passage of time nor evidence of rehabilitation as distinctions from the class of excluded individuals. With no other bases for distinction, the court concluded Beers’s right was not burdened. Beers filed a petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, who granted certiorari, but remanded the case with instructions to dismiss as moot.

LOOKING FORWARD

            In 2019, nearly forty-thousand people were killed and thirty-thousand were injured by incidents involving a firearm. With the United States grappling with its relationship with guns and the Second Amendment, understanding the limits (or lack thereof) of Second Amendment rights is critical. This extends beyond the conversation here—who can have guns, when they may use them, and where they may be stored or taken is inherently a part of the national conversation on violence in this country. The issue, and many others, needs to be addressed at the highest level. Whether involuntary commitment to a mental health institution triggers a lifelong ban on firearm ownership is ripe for Supreme Court review—does such a record make you lose your Second [Amendment] for a lifetime?