Federal law (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4)) prohibits any person “who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution” from possessing firearms or ammunition. In Keyes v. Lynch, a federal district court in Pennsylvania held that § 922(g)(4) violated the Second Amendment as applied to Plaintiff Jonathan Yox. 

As a juvenile, Mr. Yox had been devastated by his parents’ divorce. Influenced by an older girl, he engaged in destructive behavior, cutting himself and entering into a suicide pact. Consequently, he was involuntarily committed to a mental institution.

Subsequently, Mr. Yox honorably served in the Army, where he trained with a wide variety of firearms, including machine guns and grenade launchers. Returning from active duty in Afghanistan, Mr. Yox was notably not recommended for further psychological evaluation after his deployment briefing, and later received an honorable discharge. Now, Mr. Yox works as an officer at a state correctional institute, where he regularly carries and uses a firearm in the scope of his employment.

While Mr. Yox had long been trusted with firearms in his official capacities, he had still been committed to a mental institution for purposes of § 922(g)(4). Therefore, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives argued that Mr. Yox remained prohibited under federal law from possessing a firearm in his private capacity. 

To determine whether Mr. Yox should be exempted from § 922(g)(4)’s prohibition, the court questioned whether he was able to distinguish himself from those persons historically barred from Second Amendment protections—or put differently, whether Mr. Yox could prove that he is no more dangerous than a typical law-abiding citizen, despite falling within a category of prohibited persons. 

The court declared that “it requires a suspension of logic to believe that Mr. Yox is mentally stable enough to possess and use various types of firearms in his professional capacity…but is not mentally stable enough to possess a firearm for self-protection in his home.” Therefore, the court concluded, it would be unconstitutional to apply § 922(g)(4)’s firearms prohibition to Mr. Yox.

In addition to the compelling fact pattern, Keyes is noteworthy because of the court’s exemplary Second Amendment analysis. Specifically, the court properly applied the Supreme Court’s “presumptively lawful” language set forth in D.C. v. Heller.

Heller was the Court’s landmark 2008 case in which it held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. In doing so, the Court deemed prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places, and laws imposing conditions on the commercial sale of arms “presumptively lawful.” This “presumptively lawful” language has proven problematic for lower courts, which have articulated a variety of different standards for applying it.

Some courts automatically reject any challenge to the “presumptively lawful” regulations, doing nothing more than referencing the Heller language. This approach mistakenly ignores the word “presumptively,” and treats these laws as if they were deemed “conclusively lawful” rather than merely “presumptively lawful.”

Some courts go further, and uphold any law that is even analogous to those laws specifically identified by Heller—thus using the language as a sort of safe harbor for all sorts of unlisted regulations. For instance, in the Federal Circuit Courts, prohibitions on illegal drug users, domestic violence misdemeanants, and persons subject to domestic violence restraining orders have all been justified based on the Heller language that makes absolutely no mention of any such laws. While the Heller Court did state that its list “does not purport to be exhaustive,” that statement alone cannot in good-faith be read to automatically justify a law simply because it is comparable to another law that was deemed “presumptively lawful.” Nothing in Heller suggests that an unlisted law need not withstand a Second Amendment challenge on its own merits.

Other courts (like the Keyes court) have interpreted the language to suggest that the identified restrictions presumably fall outside the Second Amendment’s protections. And other courts yet have interpreted the language to suggest that the identified restrictions burden the Second Amendment, but nevertheless are presumably permissible restrictions.

These latter two interpretations are more faithful to the Constitution, because they allow the presumption of lawfulness to be rebutted. Providing a plaintiff the opportunity to rebut the presumption prevents the court from stripping anyone of a constitutional right without conducting a sophisticated and individualized analysis. It thereby reduces the likelihood that a person fit to possess arms will be arbitrarily prevented from doing so simply because he once fell within a broad category of persons covered by a statute. Further, casting a wide statutory net while allowing each individual an opportunity to contest his particular case is the surest way to prevent dangerous persons from obtaining arms while still safeguarding everyone’s constitutional rights.

Keyes exemplifies the wisdom of the rebuttable presumption approach. By allowing Mr. Yox to rebut the presumption of lawfulness, the court avoided what it called “the illogical contradiction of [Mr. Yox] being able to possess firearms in his professional capacities but not being able to possess a firearm for protection in his own home.” However, in many courts, that “illogical contradiction” would have been upheld without any consideration of Mr. Yox’s unique circumstances. This contrast plainly illustrates why the rebuttal presumption approach is the most reliably just.