The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering an old lawsuit, originally dismissed, that questions whether a citizen of the United States can be permanently barred from owning a gun on account of a previous stay in a mental institution.
The Gun Control Act of 1968, signed into law by Lyndon Johnson, prohibits gun retailers from selling to individuals who have “been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution.” Clifford Tyler, who failed a background check in 2011 due to a 30-day stay in a mental institution in 1988, is challenging the law, claiming that it violates his Second Amendment right to bear arms.
It obviously does.
Most people would consider it common sense to argue that crazy people shouldn’t have guns — until you realize that the criteria for what qualifies a person as “certifiable” has changed vastly over the years. In 1968, when the law was passed, it was the near-unanimous opinion of psychiatrists that homosexuality was a mental illness, for which you could be hospitalized. As such, there are probably gay people today who would be unable to buy guns solely as a result of their sexual orientation and 20th century society’s disapproval of it.
This is not the only case of psychiatrists unilaterally deciding that certain behaviors are illnesses justifying institutionalization. For centuries, and until very recently, masturbation was regarded as a dangerous cause of insanity, and people who engaged in it were “treated” through castration and genital mutilation. During McCarthyism, anyone professing communist ideas was painted as a mentally ill. Prior to the Civil War, slaves who ran away from their masters were said to suffer from “drapetomania.”
The point of looking at these past definitions of mental illness is not to show how far we’ve come or to laugh at the primitive thinking of an unenlightened age. It’s to show the inherent subjectivity of mental illness. What is considered “crazy” in any given time is not a question of fact, but a rejection of ideas and behaviors that run contrary to social norms. Whether or not someone is considered mentally ill has less to do with him and his mind, than with the society which surrounds him.
Things are no different today. Kids who have trouble paying attention in school are said to have a disorder. People who feel sad are said to be depressed. People who drink or gamble more than we think they should are said to suffer from the disease of addiction. Over the last few years, there have been serious efforts to portray skeptics of catastrophic global warming, and conservatives in general, as mentally defective.
In Tyler’s case, he was committed by his daughters after his wife left him and took most of his money. They worried that he might be a danger to himself, which was understandable given that his life was falling apart. What is not understandable is that this brief time of crisis should prohibit him from owning a firearm for the rest of his life.
Institutionalization is not a medical — or even criminal — tool. It is a political tool to marginalize and stigmatize people who behave in ways that society disapproves of. Denying such individuals their basic constitutional rights, individuals who have hurt no one and committed no crime. It’s high time that the courts recognize that having been in an institution 30 years ago does not make you less of a person and does not justify stripping away our most basic liberties.
This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.