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Gun Rights of the “Mentally Defective”: Give Me Liberty or Give Me an Explanation

I subscribe to some really strange electronic newsletters. I don’t know why, except they are free and usually on topics that have absolutely nothing to do with my life – like one on military immunizations I subscribed to after the anthrax scare.

My latest is a newsletter from the Federal Firearms Licensee Information Service, a division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive at the U.S. Justice Department.

I find the bureau’s activities fascinating. It’s like the folks in Washington decided to create one agency to regulate the most dangerous and controversial substances on the planet! Alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives. One-stop shopping for true crime television producers!

Anyway, the lead article in the September issue of the FFLIS newsletter is called,”Adjudicated Mentally Defective” and it’s all about the federal laws governing possession of firearms by the “mentally defective” and how to get your gun rights restored if you are ever declared “mentally defective.” I’m not a big fans of firearms but you put the words “mentally defective” and “firearms” in the same sentence and I’m interested.

Basically, federal law prohibits anyone who has been “adjudicated a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution” from owning or possessing a firearm or ammunition that has been “shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.”

That would seem to be just about any firearm in America unless you live next door to the Smith & Wesson factory. There are also state laws that govern possession of a firearm by someone with a mental illness but that is the topic for another blog.

A person is “adjudicated as a mental defective” if any lawful authority finds that “a person, as a result of subnormal intelligence, or mental illness or incompetency, condition or disease: (1) is a danger to himself or others or (2) lacks the mental capacity to contract or order his own affairs.” Also included are those who have been found to be insane by a criminal court, incompetent to stand trial or declared not-guilty be reason of insanity.

Consider yourself having been “committed to a mental institution” if you have been ordered by a court or involuntarily committed because of drug use. Voluntary commitments and court-ordered evaluations do not quality as “committed to a mental institution.”

The good news is you can have your federal gun possession rights restored. The bad news is that this is not going to happen. According to the newsletter, since October 1992, ATF’s annual appropriation has been prohibited from spending any money to investigate or act upon applications for restoration of federal gun rights.

“Accordingly, ATF cannot accept or process these applications.”

What? What’s the point of having the restoration rules if they haven’t been able to use them in 20 years?

The “mentally defective” can breathe a little easier knowing¬† that you are NOT prohibited from possession a gun or ammunition if your adjudication was set aside or expunged, you were released from mandatory treatment, supervision or monitoring, you no longer “suffer from the disabling mental health condition,” you have been “otherwise rehabilitated” or “adjudication or commitment was based solely on a medical finding without opportunity for hearing by the Federal department or agency with proper jurisdiction.”

Those exemptions sound reasonable on paper, but just try explaining to the folks at a gun shop that, “really, that law doesn’t apply to me because I “no longer suffer from the disabling mental condition,” or that you were improperly committed by an agency that didn’t have authority to do so.

You think they are going to sell you a gun? I don’t think so.

I don’t want to get into the debate here about whether people with mental illnesses should be allowed to own or possess guns. That’s a very, very tricky debate. We had a case in our area two years ago in which a man with bipolar disorder killed five family members, including a 5-year-old girl, with a gun he purchased a week earlier.

On the other side of the argument is another guy with bipolar disorder who was involuntarily committed years ago and has followed his treatment regimen and is healthy but can’t cross state lines with his gun to go duck hunting with his buddies.

I suppose you could argue that none of this makes much difference because we’re not talking about many people who have been denied their gun rights because they are or have been declared “mentally defective.” But then why is this the cover story on the latest newsletter from the Federal Firearms Licensee Information Service?

Can someone please explain this to me?

Gun Rights of the “Mentally Defective”: Give Me Liberty or Give Me an Explanation

Christine Stapleton

Christine Stapleton has been a journalist for 35 years. She is now an investigative reporter for The Palm Beach Post. In 2006, began writing a blog for PsychCentral called Depression on My Mind. Her latest blog, Addiction Matters, draws on her 19 years of sobriety and her coverage of the drug treatment industry in South Florida.

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APA Reference
Stapleton, C. (2011). Gun Rights of the “Mentally Defective”: Give Me Liberty or Give Me an Explanation. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Sep 2011
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