Short-Term Emergency Commitment Laws and their Impact on Firearm Possession Rights

By Andrew T. Campbell, Esq.

The Policy Surveillance Program recently updated its dataset analyzing state laws governing the short-term emergency commitment process. This dataset includes state laws that limit an individual’s right to possess a firearm following short-term emergency commitment. This aspect of the law captured by the dataset is particularly relevant given the unfortunate rise in mass shootings throughout the United States in recent years, with the latest shooting occurring in Kalamazoo, Michigan on February 21 (see also Deadliest U.S. mass shootings – 1984-2015 from the Los Angeles Times). These mass shooting tragedies have spurred debate and legislative action on gun control, to which issues of mental health have become inextricably intertwined despite research that indicates that mental illness is only a small factor in violence (see for example Mental health legislation complicated by gun control debate from The Washington Post; and Debate over gun control, mental health starts anew from CBS News). Additionally, on January 5, 2016, President Obama announced an executive action to battle gun violence, which includes a $500 million investment toward increasing access to mental health care.

With respect to the legal landscape, federal law restricts the sale of firearms to individuals who have been adjudicated as a “mental defective” or “committed to any mental institution.” Committed to a mental institution in this instance encompasses long-term involuntary commitments, but does not include those admitted for observation, i.e., short-term emergency commitment. Some states, however, have gone further and have enacted more extensive legislation that limits the right to possess a firearm for individuals who have been subject to short-term emergency commitment. With short-term emergency commitment, law enforcement officers and certain other individuals have the right to involuntarily admit individuals to a mental health care facility for a short period of time if they are displaying symptoms of a mental illness and pose a danger to themselves or others.

In total, 23 states limit an individual’s right to possess a firearm following short-term emergency commitment (up from 21 in 2014). To do so, states use broader language than that contained in federal law to capture short-term emergency commitment situations. For example, New Jersey law broadly restricts firearm possession for individuals who have been “confined for a mental disorder to a hospital, mental institution or sanitarium.” Further, in Texas, a psychiatric disorder diagnosis by a licensed physician during short-term emergency commitment may lead to the inability to carry a firearm. The common thread in this trend in state law is that the individual need not be “adjudicated” as having a mental illness in order for firearm possession rights to be restricted.

Going forward, gun control and Second Amendment considerations will remain important issues as the country continues to face mass shootings. In response, many states have made short-term emergency commitment a basis for restricting firearm possession. With this in mind, continued research is crucial to evaluate the effectiveness of reducing gun violence by restricting firearm possession to those subject to short-term emergency commitment.

For more details on the current state of the law, visit our map at LawAtlas.org.

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