State rules vary on guns for the mentally ill

September 20, 2013
Photo by Thomas Cooper/Getty Images
(Thomas Cooper/Getty Images)

Even states controlled by the most ardent gun rights advocates put at least some restrictions on people with mental illness owning firearms. But across the country, there’s little consensus on where the burden for defining mental illness lies.

In the 10 months since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., several states with overwhelmingly Republican legislatures have loosened restrictions on firearm ownership. But even the reddest of red states have bans on firearm ownership by those who have been committed to mental institutions or judged unfit to own a weapon — and several of those states even tightened restrictions this year on those who suffer from mental illness.

Broadly speaking, there are four categories of bans on the mentally ill possessing firearms: Some states rely solely on the courts to decide whether an individual is a danger to himself or herself and others. Others ban those subject to court orders as well as those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. A small handful of states rely on court orders and commitment to mental institutions, either voluntary or involuntary. And a number of states only prohibit those who have been committed, without the necessity of a court’s input.

A plurality of states fall into the second category — they ban those who have a court order against them or who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Federal law bans firearm ownership by anyone who “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution.” Twenty-one states, from Republican Arkansas and Texas to liberal Hawaii and Rhode Island, subscribe to that level of a ban.

Virginia does too, though it allows someone who has been committed to possess a firearm after their period of commitment has ended.

Six states — Colorado, Kentucky, Alabama, Alaska, Vermont and New Hampshire — default to federal rules.

California, Connecticut, Maryland, Mississippi and New York apply a stricter standard. Those states include individuals who have voluntarily committed themselves to a mental institution to the list of people who cannot own a gun. Earlier this month, the California legislature passed a law that bans those who have committed certain drug crimes from owning a weapon for 10 years.

Nine states, mostly in the Mountain West, rely solely on the courts to decide whether someone cannot own a gun. And another eight states only ban those who have been involuntarily committed to mental health institutions or alcohol and drug treatment centers.

Indiana and Oklahoma are the only states that put the legal burden on the gun seller, rather than the purchaser. Indiana code prohibits a person from transferring a handgun to someone the seller “has reasonable cause to believe” is mentally incompetent. Oklahoma law prohibits transferring a weapon to “a mentally or emotionally unbalanced person,” though the definition stops there.

New Jersey, a state that only prevents those who have been committed to a mental institution from owning firearms, also includes some antiquated language in their statute. No one “who is presently an habitual drunkard” may receive a gun permit in the Garden State.

The list of how states restrict gun ownership for the mentally ill:

Requires a court order to restrict ownership
Arizona
Delaware
Idaho
Missouri
Montana
Nebraska
South Dakota
Tennessee
Utah

Requires a court order or an involuntary commitment to a mental health facility
U.S.
Arkansas
District of Columbia
Hawaii
Iowa
Louisiana
Maine
Michigan
Nevada
New Mexico
North Carolina
North Dakota
Ohio
Oregon
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
South Carolina
Texas
Virginia
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Wyoming

Court order, involuntary or voluntary commitment to a mental health facility
California
Connecticut
Maryland
Mississippi
New York

Requires an involuntary commitment only
Florida
Georgia
Illinois
Kansas
Massachusetts
Minnesota
New Jersey
Washington

Burden falls on gun seller
Indiana
Oklahoma

No specific statute, defaults to federal standard
Alabama
Alaska
Colorado
Kentucky
New Hampshire
Vermont

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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