A Difficult Question: Should Those with a History of Mental Illness Ever Get Their Guns Back?

The New York Times recently conducted a thorough and much needed investigation into the process by which those with a history of mental illness can petition to restore their gun rights. The topic is incredibly complicated, the players involved are countless, and the science underlying the process can be murky. But as slippery as the issue is, it’s one of great importance to countless individuals who have – for various reasons- lost their right to own and use firearms.

Of course, the issue of public safety figures largely into the equation, especially given the mental health backgrounds of recent high-profile shooters like Jared Lee Loughner and Seung-Hui Cho – neither of whom stood on firm psychological footing, but were permitted firearms.

According to federal law, anyone involuntarily committed or deemed a “mental defective” is prohibited from buying or possessing firearms. But, as Guns.com recently reported, these laws are often ineffective because some states do not properly submit their mental health records to the F.B.I.’s nationwide National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Although that problem is being remedied over time, the immediacy of the problem hardly lends itself to incremental or slow-moving solutions.

As the New York Times has highlighted, quick fixes or easy solutions are not aplenty when it comes to whose gun rights should be restored following mental illness. But at the very least, there are clearly some elements of the system that are broken. And the issue of determining who gets their guns isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, following recent federal legislation, a process for gun rights restoration has been put in place for those whose rights were revoked due to mental health issues.

Following the Virginia Tech Massacre, the U.S. Congress passed legislation aimed at making it more difficult for those with mental illness to purchase firearms. But in order to gain the backing of the National Rifle Association, lawmakers included a provision that created a process for restoring gun rights for those who had previously had them revoked as a result of mental health problems. In the wake of the federal legislation, more than 20 states have implemented similar restoration laws.

But as with most laws, the notion underlying the measure is a good one, but the implementation of the statute is tricky. Unfortunately, as the report uncovered, the process for restoring gun ownership rights for those who lost them due to mental illness often varies from place to place. Furthermore, the implementation and oversight of this process varies  – depending upon the locale – from stringent to non-existent.

For the most part, local judges ultimately determine whether petitioners can get their guns back. But judges are only a small piece of the puzzle. There is often little or no coordination between mental health professionals and government officials, including the judges who have the final say. As the New York Times investigation reported, judges often hear a few words from petitioners before simply granting them the benefit of the doubt. In many cases, clinical and psychiatric records are not taken into account, nor is testimony from friends and family.

In some unfortunate cases, those whose gun rights were restored later procured firearms and did harm to themselves or others. The New York Times told the story of a “talented but troubled” Disney artist named Ryan Anthony, a promising animator who had been won an Emmy Award. But throughout his struggles with mental illness and recurring thoughts of suicide, Mr. Anthony lost his gun privileges. However, Anthony later petitioned the state of California to restore his gun rights. Anthony had expressed a desire to purchase guns for skeet shooting. Following a psychiatric evaluation – one conducted by a court-appointed psychiatrist who may not have been privy to Mr. Anthony’s troubled past – the doctor wrote, “There does not appear to be any contraindication to his being able to get guns.”

At no point did the judge hear testimony from Anthony’s family or those closest to him, individuals who would likely have foreseen his tragic intent. Shortly after having his firearm rights restored, Ryan Anthony borrowed some money from the family friends he was staying with, purchased a shotgun, checked into a hotel, and turned the gun on himself. Ryan Anthony’s example is certainly not the norm, but it represents a heart-wrenching instance in which the system failed. It also highlights the lack of communication between those closest to the individuals seeking to restore their gun rights and the decision-makers who have the power to do so.

The examples of those seeking to reinstate their gun rights range from U.S. Military veterans suffering from P.T.S.D. to individuals who have a history of depression or other commonly recognized mental health struggles. Other examples include individuals with histories of violence, schizophrenia, dementia and other serious or chronic mental illnesses. In other words, the diversity of the pool of individuals seeking gun rights reinstatement is incredibly wide, making it difficult for officials to adequately asses each case with one single set of criteria.

And indeed, no one state does things quite the same way as another. In some states, residents were able to have their rights reinstated by mail, without ever having to appear before a judge or a court. In other states like California, a rigorous process is required before individuals can get their gun rights restored.

All of these details paint a picture of a diverse array of folks trying to get back their guns, and a diverse array of approaches to dealing with those individuals. The backdrop to this scenario is an overarching need to protect public safety. In many cases, folks who seem to have a handle on their mental health can quickly take turn for the worse by simply failing to take their medication properly. For war vets suffering from P.T.S.D., certain events can trigger involuntary relapses.

In one such case reported by the New York Times, Joshua St. Clair – a vet who had returned from Iraq – heard a rattling at his gate. Next, said St. Clair, he “blacked out.” The next thing he remembered was pointing his M-4 assault rifle at his visitor’s chest, a visitor who happened to be a friend of his. The incident resulted in a detention order and psychiatric treatment, after which Mr. St. Clair’s gun rights were restored.

St. Clair’s case sheds light on the common struggles of those returning from war. Chris Cox of the Department of Veterans Affairs, an organization that has aided numerous veterans in attempts to regain their gun rights, stressed the need to treat veterans with dignity, telling the New York Times, “We don’t want to treat our soldiers as potential criminals because they’re struggling with the aftermath of dealing with their service.” Click here to read the New York Times report, and to view other cases of individuals restoring their gun rights.

The flip side of the coin is echoed by the Brady Center for the Prevention of Gun Violence and other gun-control advocates who warn that a single mistake could lead to the next Virginia Tech massacre. Further muddying the waters is the difficulty with which mental health professionals determine the relationship between mental illness and violent behavior. Although most experts agree that there is a compelling statistical correlation between the two, psychologists, psychiatrists and others are still debating the nature of that relationship.

Furthermore, introducing gun ownership into the mix raises the stakes for everyone involved. For some, like the family of the talented Disney animator Ryan Anthony, the answers to these questions may now hold a diminished meaning.

Unfortunately, mental health struggles are all-too common. Most of us know someone who has struggled with some form of mental illness. It could be a friend or a neighbor, a sister or a father. And in a nation where gun ownership is as dearly held a constitutional right as any, the question remains: How do we respect the rights of these individuals to bear arms without compromising our right to life, liberty, and public safety?