An interesting decision out of U.S. District Court in northern California, where a federal judge declared this week that a man in his 30s still possesses his Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms after a drug binge as a teenager landed him in a mental institution.
The state of California had argued that Easton Stokes had forever forfeited his 2A rights after being voluntarily admitted to a hospital in 2002 after several days of munching on magic mushrooms, drinking alcohol, and smoking pot. Under federal law, anyone “adjudicated” as mentally defective can lose their right to keep and bear arms, but as Judge William Alsup (appointed to the bench by then-president Bill Clinton in 1999) ruled, under Ninth Circuit precedent that commitment must involve “robust judicial involvement.”
Stokes, who wasn’t involuntarily committed as an 18-year old, was “certified” by medical staff for a 14-day inpatient hospital stay after a 72-hour mental evaluation, but no judge was ever involved in that decision. As a result, wrote Alsup, the plaintiff is still in full possession of his Second Amendment rights and is now free to inherit two firearms from his late grandfather.
Federal law prohibits a person “who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution” from possessing a firearm or ammunition. In enacting Section 922(g), Congress sought “to keep firearms out of the hands of presumptively risky people.” “Congress determined that, like felons and domestic-violence assailants, those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution also pose an increased risk of violence.”
Here, all agree that plaintiff has never been “adjudicated to be a mental defective.” At all material times, the implementing ATF regulation defined “committed to a mental institution” as follows: Committed to a mental institution. A formal commitment of a person to a mental institution by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority. The term includes a commitment to a mental institution involuntarily. The term includes commitment for mental defectiveness or mental illness. It also includes commitments for other reasons, such as for drug use. The term does not include a person in a mental institution for observation or a voluntary admission to a mental institution.
California Attorney General Gary Bonta argued that under state law, any and all “certifications” by doctors that result in hospitalization after a 72-hour mental health hold are considered “commitments”, even if the patient originally volunteered for that 72-hour evaluation.
Judge Alsup disagreed, citing existing Ninth Circuit precedent, and ordered the state to allow Stokes to take possession of the guns left to him by his grandfather. However, Alsup also stayed his decision pending final appeal by the state, so for now Stokes is still stuck in the legal limbo created by California law.
If the state is truly interested in ensuring that those who need mental health help can get it, punishing those who voluntarily seek out treatment with the loss of their civil rights is a poor way to go about it. Abusing federal law in order to prevent gun ownership for those who’ve sought help on their own is even worse, and I’m glad that Judge Alsup came to the conclusion that he did. Whether or not the Ninth Circuit will concur with Alsup’s decision remains to be seen, but based on Alsup’s opinion the appellate court would have to reverse its own precedent if it wants to declare that Stokes is forevermore prohibited from legally possessing a firearm.