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Beers v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

June 20, 2019


          Argued on July 12, 2018

          On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D. C. Civil No. 2-16-cv-06440) District Judge: Honorable Legrome D. Davis

          Michael P. Gottlieb (ARGUED) Vangrossi & Recchuiti Counsel for Appellant

          Tyce R. Walters (ARGUED) Patrick Nemeroff Michael S. Raab United States Department of Justice Civil Division Counsel for Appellees

          Before: SHWARTZ, ROTH and RENDELL, Circuit Judges




         Federal law prohibits the possession of firearms by anyone who has previously been adjudicated as mentally ill or committed to a mental institution. Bradley Beers challenges this law on the ground that, as applied to him, it violates the Second Amendment.

         Mentally ill individuals have traditionally been prohibited from possessing guns because they were considered to be a danger to themselves and to others. Beers cannot factually distinguish himself from this historically-barred class because a court has determined that Beers was a danger to himself and thereby required that he be committed to a mental institution. Beers contends, however, that, although he was previously involuntarily institutionalized, he has since been rehabilitated. For this reason, he argues that his rehabilitation distinguishes his circumstances from those in the historically-barred class.

         The issue that we must consider then is whether passage of time and evidence of rehabilitation are relevant to our inquiry concerning the constitutionality of the prohibition of the possession of firearms by Beers.


         Beers was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric inpatient hospital on December 28, 2005, after he told his mother that he was suicidal and put a gun in his mouth. Beers's mother was particularly concerned because Beers kept a gun in his room and had the means to kill himself. Beers was involuntarily admitted to the hospital for up to 120 hours pursuant to Section 302 of Pennsylvania's Mental Health Procedures Act (MHPA).[1] The examining physician determined that Beers was suicidal and that inpatient treatment was required for his safety.

         On December 29, 2005, and again on January 3, 2006, a Pennsylvania court extended Beers's involuntary commitment pursuant to Sections 303 and 304 of the MHPA, concluding that he presented a danger to himself or to others.[2]At the court hearings for the extensions, the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas determined that Beers was "severely mentally disabled and in need of treatment."[3]

         Beers has had no mental health treatment since 2006. A physician who examined Beers in 2013 opined that Beers was able "to safely handle firearms again without risk of harm to himself or others."[4] Shortly after he was discharged from his commitment in 2006, Beers attempted to buy a firearm but was denied because a background check revealed that he had been involuntarily committed to a mental institution.

         Beers subsequently filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, asserting that 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4), [5] the federal statute prohibiting him from possessing a gun, was unconstitutional as applied to him.[6] The government moved to dismiss the complaint.

         Applying the two-part test derived from our rulings in United States v. Marzzarella[7] and Binderup v. Attorney General, [8] the District Court first determined that Beers could not distinguish his circumstances from those of mentally ill individuals who were subject to the longstanding prohibitions on firearm possession. The court next held that, pursuant to our ruling in Binderup, evidence of Beers's rehabilitation was irrelevant; thus, Beers could not rely on such evidence to distinguish his circumstances. As a result, the court ruled that § 922(g)(4) did not impose a burden on conduct falling within the scope of the Second Amendment and was therefore constitutional as applied to Beers. The District Court dismissed Beers's complaint. Beers appeals the District Court's rejection of his as-applied Second Amendment challenge to § 922(g)(4).[9]


         I. The Framework for Second Amendment Challenges

         When a challenge is made to a law prohibiting the possession of firearms, we follow our rulings in Marzzarella and Binderup. Pursuant to these cases, we are required to conduct a two-part inquiry. First, we look at the historic, traditional justifications for barring a class of individuals from possessing guns and ask whether the challenger can distinguish his circumstances from those of individuals in the historically-barred class. If the challenger makes such a showing, we proceed to the second step, which requires the government to demonstrate that the challenged law satisfies some form of heightened scrutiny.

         A. The Supreme Court's Decision in District of Columbia v. Heller

         Our jurisprudence in Second Amendment cases is based on the Supreme Court's ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller.[11] The Second Amendment provides that "[a] well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."[12] Heller involved a challenge to a District of Columbia law that banned handgun possession, including the possession of handguns in the home. The Supreme Court held in Heller that the Second Amendment guarantees to an individual the right - not unlimited - to keep and bear arms.[13] The Court recognized that "[a]t the 'core' of the Second Amendment is the right of 'law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.'"[14] Because the District of Columbia law in question violated this core Second Amendment right, the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional.

         However, in articulating the guarantee to keep and bear arms, the Supreme Court recognized that "the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."[15] Indeed, nothing in Heller, according to the Court, "should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill."[16] The Court therefore identified such prohibitions as "presumptively lawful," because they affect classes of individuals who, historically, have not had the right to keep and bear arms.[17]

         B. The Third Circuit's Two-Part Test for Analyzing Second Amendment Challenges

         Our first occasion after Heller to decide a Second Amendment challenge involved a statute prohibiting the possession of handguns with obliterated serial numbers. In Marzzarella, we applied a two-part test for evaluating Second Amendment challenges: "First, we ask whether the challenged law imposes a burden on conduct falling within the scope of the Second Amendment's guarantee."[18] If it does not, we need not proceed to the second step. If it does, however, we assess the law under heightened scrutiny.[19] Where the law survives heightened scrutiny, it is constitutional; if not, it is invalid.[20] In Marzzarella, we held that even if the law did impose a burden on protected conduct, in view of the government's interest in tracing weapons through serial numbers, the law survived intermediate scrutiny.[21]

         A year later, in United States v. Barton, we heard a challenge to 18 U.S.C § 922(g)(1), the federal statute banning felons from gun possession.[22] In Barton, we determined that, even though felon dispossession statutes were presumptively lawful under Heller, § 922(g)(1) could still be challenged as it applied to individuals.[23] In evaluating such a challenge, we turned to the traditional justifications underlying the § 922(g)(1) ban on gun possession by felons to determine whether these justifications supported permanent disarmament. This review was informed by the historical approach the Court applied in Heller. There, the Court explained that it would "expound upon the historical justifications for" presumptively lawful regulations "if and when those [regulations] come before [it]."[24]

         In Barton, our historical review informed us that, traditionally, individuals who committed violent offenses were barred from gun possession; "the common law right to keep and bear arms did not extend to this group."[25] We then held that to successfully raise an as-applied challenge, the challenger had to distinguish his circumstances from those of persons historically-barred from possession of a firearm by demonstrating either (1) that he was convicted of a minor, nonviolent crime and thus "he is no more dangerous than a typical law-abiding citizen"; or (2) that a significant time has passed so that he has been "rehabilitated" and "poses no continuing threat to society."[26] Applying this standard, we concluded that the challenger failed to distinguish his circumstances, which included prior convictions for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and for receipt of a stolen firearm.[27] As a result, we held that the statute was constitutional as applied to him.[28]

         Five years after Barton, in Binderup, we decided another as-applied challenge to § 922(g)(1), this time by two individuals, Daniel Binderup and Julio Suarez, seeking to distinguish themselves from the historically-barred class of felons. Many years earlier, the challengers had been convicted of potentially serious offenses, defined by the state as misdemeanors. They had since led lives free of criminal convictions, except for Suarez who had one conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol.[29] We were tasked with determining whether § 922(g)(1) was unconstitutional as applied to the challengers, given their "rehabilitation" after the offenses they had committed.

         In deciding the as-applied challenge, we clarified the applicable test. We explained that, at step one of Marzzarella, a challenger "must (1) identify the traditional justifications for excluding from Second Amendment protections the class of which he appears to be a member, and then (2) present facts about himself and his background that distinguish his circumstances from those of persons in the historically barred class."[30] If a challenger passes these two hurdles, "the burden shifts to the Government to demonstrate that the regulation satisfies some form of heightened scrutiny . . . at step two of the Marzzarella analysis."[31]

         In making this clarification, we overruled Barton insofar as, at the first step, it allowed a challenger to distinguish himself from a historically-barred class by demonstrating the passage of time or evidence of rehabilitation.[32] As we noted in Binderup, the historical justification for disarming felons was that they were "unvirtuous," a term historically applied to individuals who had committed "serious" crimes.[33] Where the historical justification for disarming felons was because they had committed serious crimes, risk of violent recidivism was irrelevant, "and the seriousness of the purportedly disqualifying offense is our sole focus throughout Marzzarella's first step."[34] We therefore emphasized that neither passage of time nor evidence of rehabilitation "can restore Second Amendment rights that were forfeited."[35] After Binderup, the only way a felon can distinguish himself from the historically-barred class of individuals who have been convicted of serious crimes is by demonstrating that his conviction was for a non-serious crime, i.e., that he is literally not a part of the historically-barred class.[36]

         Three factors supported our conclusion that Barton's emphasis on rehabilitation evidence was misplaced. First, there was no historical support for the proposition that Second Amendment rights could be restored after they were forfeited, and historical context was the guiding principle for our Second Amendment analysis.[37] Second, to the extent such a restoration remedy was available, it was a matter of congressional grace.[38] Third, and most importantly, we held that courts are "not 'institutionally equipped' to conduct 'a neutral, wide-ranging investigation' into post-conviction assertions of rehabilitation."[39]

         II. Whether ยง 922(g)(4) Burdens Conduct Falling Within the ...

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