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If, in evaluating a challenge to a law restricting a Second Amendment right, the government does not meet its burden of establishing that the regulated conduct falls outside the scope of the Second Amendment as historically understood at the framing, then courts proceed to analyze the strength of the government's justification for restricting or regulating the exercise of Second Amendment rights. It is here where the court must decide and apply the appropriate level of scrutiny. Because District of Columbia Heller rules out rational basis, the choice is between intermediate and strict scrutiny. If all that was required to overcome the right to keep and bear arms was a rational basis, the Second Amendment would be redundant with the separate constitutional prohibitions on irrational laws, and would have no effect. Given Heller's focus on core Second Amendment activity, the choice of scrutiny level should be informed by (1) how close the law comes to the core of the Second Amendment right, and (2) the severity of the law's burden on the right.
Plaintiff-Appellant Clifford Charles Tyler, a prospective gun purchaser, was involuntarily committed thirty years ago following an emotional divorce. Despite being three decades removed from this brief depressive episode, and despite a currently clean bill of mental health, Tyler is ineligible to possess a firearm because of his prior involuntary commitment, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4). After the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) declined to review his petition for restoration of his right to own a firearm, Tyler filed suit in federal court seeking a declaratory judgment that § 922(g)(4) is unconstitutional as applied to him. The district court dismissed Tyler's suit for failure to state a claim. Since 2008, the lower courts have struggled to delineate the boundaries of the right recognized by the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 128 S. Ct. 2783, 171 L. Ed. 2d 637 (2008). On the one hand, the Heller Court recognized, for the first time, that the Second Amendment protected the fundamental right of "law-abiding, responsible citizens" to own firearms. On the other, it recognized that this right was not "unlimited" and observed that longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill are "presumptively lawful." The district court dismissed Tyler's suit for failure to state a claim, reasoning that Heller's statement regarding "presumptively lawful" prohibitions on the mentally ill foreclosed such claims.
In consideration of Heller, Did Tyler, "who has been committed to a mental institution," § 922(g)(4), have a cognizable claim under the Second Amendment?
The court held that an applicant seeking to purchase a firearm who was prohibited from firearm ownership by 18 U.S.C.S. § 922(g)(4), applying to individuals who had previously been involuntarily committed, stated a claim that § 922(g)(4) was unconstitutional as applied to him under the Second Amendment. Although the U.S. Supreme Court had held that prohibitions on firearms ownership for the mentally ill were "presumptively lawful," this did not prevent the court from scrutinizing § 922(g)(4), particularly given § 922(g)(4)'s lack of historical pedigree (it was enacted in 1968, and no historical prohibition on gun ownership for the mentally ill was found). Intermediate scrutiny was the correct standard to apply; § 922(g)(4) imposed a lifetime ban on a fundamental constitutional right, and more evidence was required to support such a severe restriction.