An interesting court decision impacting the Second Amendment and mental health was handed down from a Federal Court in Pennsylvania last week. In the matter of Keyes v. Lynch, the Middle District of Pennsylvania held that Jonathan Yox, who had been involuntarily committed to a mental health institution in 2006, should have his right to possess and own firearms restored under federal law.
As many of us in the firearms-owning community know, an involuntary commitment to a mental institution is one of the myriad ways Americans can lose the right to possess a firearm, under 18 U.S.C. sec. 922. In this case, Yox* became a prohibited person when was involuntarily committed to a mental institution at the age of 15 because “[h]e had been emotionally devastated by his parents’ divorce and had begun cutting himself under the influence of an older girl. They also had made a suicide pact together.” Under Pennsylvania law, this initial commitment could not exceed 120 hours; Vox was committed on April 3, 2006, and released on April 6, 2006.
This was apparently the end of Yox’s involvement with mental health authorities, but his involvement with firearms was just beginning. Two years later, at the age of 17, Yox enlisted in the United States Army, where he “was trained to use, and did use, various kinds of firearms, including fully automatic rifles, machine guns, explosives, and grenade launchers. Upon his return from active duty in Afghanistan, Mr. Yox was not recommended for further psychological evaluation after his deployment briefing.” Yox was honorably discharged from military service in 2012.
Yox later secured employment as a State Correctional Officer at a State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania. In this position, Yox “actively possesses and uses a firearm in his official capacity as a state correctional officer. He is permitted to possess firearms in his official capacity as a law enforcement officer by operation of 18 U.S.C. § 925(a)(1), which provides an exception to the firearms disability created by § 922(g)(4) for individuals benefitting in their official capacities the federal or state government….” At the time the case was heard, Yox was still employed as a state correctional officer.
Yox had been prohibited from owning a firearm by both the U.S. Code and Pennsylvania law. 18 PaC.S.A. sec. 6105(c)(4) prohibits a “person who has been adjudicated as an incompetent or who has been involuntarily committed for inpatient care and treatment” from possessing a firearm. In 2008, Yox filed for restoration of his state firearms rights with a Pennsylvania court.
Ultimately, Pennsylvania restored his right to possess a firearm under commonwealth law, based on a finding that he “no longer suffers from the mental health condition…[and can] safely possess a firearm without risk to himself or any other person.” The court, however, held that they didn’t have the power to restore Yox’s rights under federal law, because federal law allows state courts to restore the right to own a firearm under federal law only if the state adheres to federally-prescribed standards for dealing with those matters. Pennsylvania, apparently, does not do this.
The District Court specifically examined the issue whether or not Yox had a Second Amendment right to possess a firearm. It concluded that he did. At the end of the day, his years in the Army and at a state correctional institution in which firearms were standard duty equipment was sufficient to overcome any doubts about Yox’s responsibility with firearms:
It requires a suspension of logic to believe that Mr. Yox is mentally stable enough to possess and use various types of firearms in his professional capacity, including putting his life on the line for his country while on active military duty, but is not mentally stable enough to possess a firearm for self-protection in his home….
The attorney for Michael Keyes (whose similar case was dismissed on procedural grounds earlier,) Joshua Prince, commented:
it is extremely refreshing to see Judge Jones acknowledge that those who “are mentally ill” is a distinct and separate category from those who had an single-isolated mental health commitment over a decade ago. I believe we will see a number of federal challenges, some already pending in Pennsylvania, in relation to whether mental health commitments can strip an individual of a constitutional right, especially under Section 302 of the Mental Health and Procedures Act, as it does not provide any form of due process.
I can’t disagree with that. This case was an incredibly favorable one, though, and it will be interesting to see whether or not courts will be willing to restore rights for others who became prohibited persons because of a similar one-off involuntary commitment decades in their past, but did not subsequently spend years in military service. As for any putative Obama Administration appeal of this decision…stay tuned.
* The case is formally styled Michael L. Keyes and Jonathan K. Yox v. Loretta Lynch, Attorney General of the United States, et al., although Keyes’ claims were dismissed earlier on procedural grounds.