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Federal case exposes lack of review process for formerly mentally ill people trying to own guns

Sep 19, 2016

A man who was once hospitalized for depression cannot legally buy a gun in Michigan – at least not without a court fight. That’s the decision handed down recently by a federal appeals court.

Michigan resident Clifford Tyler was turned away by a gun dealer after a background check revealed his history of being hospitalized for depression. Tyler is 74, and his hospitalization was more than 30 years ago following a divorce. Tyler says he has not had any mental health issues since.

But federal law says Tyler and others who are hospitalized for mental health problems or who are “adjudicated as mental defective” are prohibited from possessing a firearm.

Tyler wanted to appeal the ban, but when he tried to go to a review board to explain that he has no current problems with his mental health, he found that board doesn’t exist. 

Federal law has a provision for a review board, but Congress stopped funding it and as a result Michigan and many other states do not have one. A state can set up its own review board as long as the feds approve it, but Michigan hasn’t done that.

Lucas McCarthy is Tyler’s attorney. He says the way the statute is set up, and the lack of funding, means you can’t get a review based solely on where you live.

“My client has no way to go through the federal government and no way to go through the state government to have a review,” he said. “And that’s very unfortunate for something that is after all a Constitutional right.”

Tyler and others like him have to go through the federal court system. But this is more expensive and takes more time than simply going to a review board with your medical records.

The Ohio Disability Rights Law and Policy Center filed a brief in this case. Executive Director Michael Kirkman says the way the system is set up discriminates against people with mental health disabilities.

“Whether you agree or not about the right to bear arms being a fundamental right, that’s the law now,” he said. “And it should apply, be applied evenly to all folks. Mr. Tyler’s case is a good example of why this federal statute’s not working.”

For now, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals sent the case back to the lower court with instructions for how to decide if Tyler should get to own a firearm.