Mental Illness and Gun Rights

Is it constitutional to restrict gun rights for individuals with mental illness? Professor Jody Madeira of Indiana Maurer School of Law provides Second Amendment analysis.

When addressing the intersection of mental illness and firearm access, Professor Madeira highlights that nearly 50% of Americans will experience a mental health condition at some point in their lives. However, the mental health conditions that trigger firearm restrictions are specific. According to federal law, the prohibition of firearm possession for mental illness applies to individuals who have been adjudicated as a "mental defective" or involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Federal law mandates that those adjudicated as mentally incompetent or involuntarily committed be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), effectively barring them from purchasing firearms.

Mental illnesses do not necessarily have to be violent to trigger restrictions. Mental illness restrictions on gun rights are often invoked for self preservation of the person involved. Statistically, individuals with mental health issues are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence, and documented violence often manifests as self-harm or firearm-related suicide. 

Federal mental illness restrictions work together with state Red Flag laws to restrict firearm access. State Red Flag laws have less stringent requirements than involuntary commitment or adjudication, covering a broader range of situations. While Red Flag laws target individuals who are a danger to themselves or their community, federal mental illness restrictions also apply to those who lack the mental capacity to safely handle lethal weapons. 

The discussion also touches on the impact of the landmark Supreme Court decision, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. While Bruen affirmed long-standing prohibitions on firearm access for individuals with mental health conditions, it may open the door for future challenges and interpretations. For example, someone involuntarily committed as a juvenile but now leading a stable life might seek to restore their firearm rights, raising important constitutional questions.

Professor Madeira explains that many mental health conditions can be temporary or manageable with treatment. Despite this, federal restrictions can result in a lifelong bar on firearm possession. States have varying approaches when it comes to the restoration of firearm rights, with some allowing petitions for restoration shortly after commitment, and others requiring significant waiting periods or medical certifications. These processes are intended to permit people to seek treatment and help when they need it and then be able to restore their Second Amendment rights once they have recovered. Professor Madeira argues that a process for the restoration of rights is necessary under the Second Amendment and to meet standards of due process.

Jody Madeira is a Professor of Law at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law.

Additional Resources

This video was created in collaboration with the Duke Center for Firearms Law, dedicated to the development of firearms law as a scholarly field, through the development and support of reliable, original, and insightful scholarship, research, and programming on firearms law. 

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