How Should Treatment For Mental Illness Prevent You From Owning A Gun?

Posted on January 20th, 2013 by Dr. Blumenfield


IMPORTANT ADDENDUM: Please see link to an important statement about this topic at the end of the blog

I personally favor strict gun control laws. I also believe that that there should not be stigma against people with mental illness. People should be able to see a mental health professional with the confidence that their treatment will be confidential. The exception to this latter point is when the mental health professional believes that the person is  a danger to themselves or someone else, the mental health professional is obligated to act and notify police if indicated and/or hospitalize the patient. This obligation should not be a secret to the patient and anyone seeing a therapist should understand that would be  the appropriate and ethical behavior to be followed in those circumstances.

There may very well be a conflict in the first sentence in the above paragraph and the statements which follow. My thinking about this subject was stimulated by a recent op-ed piece in the NY Times  by Ms. Wendy Burton a former political speech writer titled “Please Take Away My Right to a  Gun” . Ms Burton argues although she might be tempted to get a gun for self protection she also realizes that her depression condition would make her more likely to use it against herself.

She quotes statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that 38,364 Americans committed suicide in 2010 and 19,392 used a gun.

Federal Law Concerning Mental Illness and Right to Own a Gun

Possession of a firearm by the mentally ill is regulated by both state and federal laws.  The federal law  states “ It is unlawful for any person to sell or otherwise dispose of any firearm or ammunition to any person knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that such person “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution.” Mentally defective is obviously an outdated term and I am guessing that would probably be interpreted to mean mentally disabled. (meaning low IQ or significant brain damages etc ). I assume that the term “committed“ to a mental institution means some type of  legal involuntary hospitalization. However, I believe that in some states  a person can sign themselves in to a hospital  and be considered to be “committed” and can be held against their will for a certain period of time even if they change their mind and wish to leave. If a person is held in a mental hospital against their will but then is released by a judge  or by another or more senior doctor after the circumstances are clarified, is that person considered to be committed?

What about a person who voluntarily  enters a mental hospital to be treated for a mental condition completly unrelated to any potential violence. For example hospitalization for anorexia, incapacitating obsessive compulsive disorder, addiction to pain medication prescribed by doctors etc. In fact if the condition was such that the person couldn’t care for themselves, they might have even been admitted on an involuntary basis (“ committed “).

imagesState Laws Concerning Mental Illness and Right to Own a Gun

Now I wondered about the wording of the various state laws. I went to the NCSL-National Conference of State Legislatures  website . All I can say is that it is quite a mixed bag on this subject. My state of California says the following :

A person is barred from possessing, purchasing, receiving, attempting to purchase or receive, or having control or custody of any firearms if the person:

  • Has been admitted to a facility and is receiving in-patient treatment for a mental illness and the attending mental health professional opines that the patient is a danger to self or others. This prohibition applies even if the person has consented to the treatment, although the prohibition ends as soon as the patient is discharged from the facility;
  • Has been adjudicated to be a danger to others as a result of a mental disorder or mental illness or has been adjudicated to be a mentally disordered sex offender. This prohibition does not apply, however, if the court of adjudication issues, upon the individual’s release from treatment or at a later date, a certificate stating that the person may possess a firearm without endangering others;
  • Has been found not guilty by reason of insanity of enumerated violent felonies. A person who is found not guilty by reason of insanity of other crimes is barred from possessing firearms unless a court finds that the person has recovered his or her sanity;
  • Has been found mentally incompetent to stand trial, unless there is a subsequent finding that the person has become competent;
  • Is currently under a court-ordered conservatorship because he or she is gravely disabled as a result of a mental disorder or impaired by chronic alcoholism

Oklahoma law briefly  states : Oklahoma prohibits knowingly transferring a firearm to:

  • A mentally or emotionally unbalanced person.

images-2Texas goes into a great deal of detail :

A person is ineligible for a license to carry a concealed weapon if the person:
(1)  has been diagnosed by a licensed physician as suffering from a psychiatric disorder or condition that causes or is likely to cause substantial impairment in judgment, mood, perception, impulse control, or intellectual ability;
(2)  suffers from a psychiatric disorder or condition described by Subdivision (1) that: (A) is in remission but is reasonably likely to redevelop at a future time; or (B) requires continuous medical treatment to avoid redevelopment;
(3)  has been diagnosed by a licensed physician, determined by a review board or similar authority, or declared by a court to be incompetent to manage the person’s own affairs; or
(4)  has entered in a criminal proceeding a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

The following constitutes evidence that a person has a psychiatric disorder or condition described by section (1), above:
(1)  involuntary psychiatric hospitalization;
(2)  psychiatric hospitalization;
(3)  inpatient or residential substance abuse treatment in the preceding five-year period;
(4)  diagnosis in the preceding five-year period by a licensed physician that the person is dependent on alcohol, a controlled substance, or a similar substance; or
(5)  diagnosis at any time by a licensed physician that the person suffers or has suffered from a psychiatric disorder or condition consisting of or relating to:
(A)  schizophrenia or delusional disorder;
(B)  bipolar disorder;
(C)  chronic dementia, whether caused by illness, brain defect, or brain injury;
(D)  dissociative identity disorder;
(E)  intermittent explosive disorder; or
(F)  antisocial personality disorder.

The other states vary greatly. Take a look at that link .

Of course the big question might be how is this information determined.

Hospital Records, Gigantic Database or Honor System?images-3

Will the information used to prevent someone from getting a gun permit  come off of insurance records, Medicaid, Medicare forms etc? Will there be a gigantic database of all mental health treatment? Or will this just be the honor system of the person applying for a gun permit? What will happen if someone reports to the  government that they know so and so was treated for a mental condition by such and such doctor or hospital and shouldn’t have a  gun permit? Will mental health professionals  have to release their records or  have to testify about their non- hospital treatment? Will there be any obligation if  a therapist learns in the course of therapy that a patient is applying for a gun permit but actually doesn’t meet the criteria of the state or perhaps of  some new all encompassing federal law??

Let’s Have a Dialog About This Subject

Now is the time for mental health professionals to join in the dialog that this country is going through. Let’ start it here. There are about 15,000 viewers /week on this blog according to the statistics which I get from word press but you are usually exceedingly reticent to send in comments. Perhaps this subject can be the exception. It may be very helpful to mental health professionals and patients if we participate in this national discussion. Please click on the comments button and let’s hear your thoughts on this subject. What should the law be concerning mental illness and the right to own a gun and how should such a law be worded? I also encourage readers outside the United States give us your viewpoint.

ADDENDUM: I was very pleased to see a recent letter by Dilip Jeste, M.D.President of the American Psychiatric Association which makes some very important points on this subject. Click here for the link Jeste_cropped






33 Responses to “How Should Treatment For Mental Illness Prevent You From Owning A Gun?”

  1. Joel cole says:

    I don’t understand why a person who was diagnosed with bipolar well over 10 years ago have never been in trouble and function more clearly than some other people who are allowed to carry and protect their family but I don’t have that right. I don’t get it I do everything legal but looks like I’m going to have to tell our government to go f@$k yourself. I am a law biding citizen who functions way better than some people do that have and carry guns legally, So you tell me what is a person supposed to do when someone tries to hurt you or your family get down on your hands and knees and wine like a little kid, I don’t think so I don’t give a damn what the government says. I will keep guns and if I am going somewhere that is rough place well guess what if you want to make it difficult for us to protect ourselves then all you government officials can kiss my ass. I will carry illegally so FUCK your laws. It’s just sad that law biding citizens who has never in almost fifty years can’t protect yourself because the government says we cant.

  2. Maggie says:

    Joel Cole I’m so with you…thank you for saying it so honestly and bluntly. I was hoping I could get a permit here in Nevada even though it’s been years since I’ve been hospitalized and I pretty much do fine because of meds. I am also a law abiding citizen and not violent. But I would like protection since I live alone. Should I even try to apply?

  3. Cliff says:

    I would never ever seek treatment from a mental health professional. I would lose the right to own a gun and it would make it more difficult to get a job. I have enough stress as it is and don’t need any more.

    NEVER EVER trust a mental health professional.

    • Thank you for your comment. I am sorry that you feel that way and way and are generalizing that mental health professionals can’t be trusted. Confidentiality is essential in mental health treatment. Our code of ethics would require us to break this code only when we believed our patient or someone else was in danger.

  4. Mary says:

    Having several therapists in the family, I would confirm that it can be challenging to trust them. I have had one or two really gifted therapists, in my life, who really helped me.

    Hang in there, it is possible to find someone trustworthy.

  5. Eve says:

    I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder over 15 years ago, the few hospitalizations I had were due to being misdiagnosed in the beginning. I manage my health with my medications, therapy when needed and exercise. I was forced into an evaluation in college, over 20 years ago, and due to poor handling on the hospital staff ended up at a state psychiatric ward for less than 10 hours, this somehow got me listed on the NICS list and now unable to obtain a gun permit? The only way to get your name off this list is not really a way at all. Not sure how someone who has not had any issues, has not been determined mentally incompetent, and is fully functional for over 15 years is not allowed to obtain a gun permit. The NICS system is broken all we are doing is making the stigma for those with mental health issues worse and not doing anything to make living with persons who own guns any safer.

    • While i personally don’t see any reason for most people to carry guns, I do agree with you that the system should not discriminate against some one just because they had some problems many years . If they are judged by a mental health professional to be stable and safe , they should be able to do what other people are allowed to do. The reason I say this, is because if we don’t have a fair system, then people with mental problems will not be honest with their therapist or will not see a therapist if they wish to own a gun.

  6. Franknever says:

    I have been hospitalized a few times in local MHU, and once in State Hospital and have never had my firearms taken away. Then again I have never misused them either. I hope this doesn’t mean I cannot get a concealed carry permit as I have never been convicted of any crime ever. I have military background in their proper and respective use, and would never stray from this in my most delusional moments (of which I have not had in 5 years). I witnessed a relative having a ‘nam moment as a child, which scared me so deeply I think I am hard-wired to never have a postal moment anyway. I know this sounds strange but I think if that were not true I would have already done something truly crazy and wouldn’t have the freedom to make this post. I am going to look into this further through legal and advocate avenues.

  7. nathaniel says:

    I just got denied a handgun transfer after i purchased one online. I am a lawabiding citizen. I don’t know why i was denied. I assume it was because im in therapy and treatment for past problems. Im sober. I’m not a felon. I have no criminal history other than driving without insurance a couple tines when i was younger, and possession of a marijuana pipe once. It was a misdemeanor ticket. I can’t even find a record of it at all in the online court systems. When i was a child i was abused and tried to kill myself. I was eleven years old when my mother Took me to the hospital. I was in and out of in patient treatment till i was fourteen. I ran away after my mother told me a lie about my step dad dying in an accident while i was in a hospital and i was transferred to a securetreatment facility. I was thirteen. I was told eleven months later – still in facility- that She lied and he commit suicide due to his alcohol addiction and wrecking the car and martial/family issues and accompanying depression… I ran away stealing mother’s car keys… Went to juvie, got probation And wound up on probation till eighteen. I have since never had legal problems. Im a Christian, Im thirty two years old with a nine month son and wife. I have never ever had legal issues involving violence or weapons. I just want to be able to protect myself and family. I live in the mountains. I also want to enjoy the fun of blowing off Steam and target shoot. I take medicine for seizures im not having any more of. I used to use drugs but i never got In trouble legally and im sober as can be now. I wanted this pistol so badly. I always wanted one and played with cap guns as a kid. Now i have a family and really wanted one even more now…. Im heart broken that the fbi would say i can’t get the gun i purchased. I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back!! Its way wrong. Completely not rational that i can’t protect myself and my family.

    • Thank you for sharing your strong feelings with the readers of this blog. As I stated in a recent reply to Eve, while I personally don’t see any reason for most people to carry guns, I do agree with you that the system should not discriminate against some one just because they have seen a therapist. . If they are judged by a mental health professional to be stable and safe , they should be able to do what other people are allowed to do. The reason I say this, is because if we don’t have a fair system, then people with mental problems will not be honest with their therapist or will not see a therapist if they wish to own a gun.That situation could created new serious problems.

  8. Christy says:

    Okay, so I actually attempted to purchase a firearm today and was denied. I was adjudicated back in October of 2014 mbecause of mental issues. I was placed in the state hospital for approximately 10 days and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. A bit about my history is I’m 32 years old and over the past 10 years I have suffered from chronic neck and back pain. I have been diagnosed with degenerative disk disease, osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis and sciatica. I have had two spinal fusions, or attempts for neither of them actually took, and eventually had rods put in my lumbar area because of the failed fushions. I have also had a cervical disk replacement, numerous injections, physical therapy and recently a spinal cord stimulator implanted in the cervical area. I am having another stimulator implanted in the thoracic and lumbar areas within the next couple of months. They have discovered a total of 6 disk with problems throughout my spine which have been the cause of the chronic pain I experience. Therefore I am and have been on pretty strong pain medication continuously for about 8 years. I have also been evaluated by my regular physician, my pain management doctor and my surgeon to make sure that there is no addiction of the natcotics. Now to get to my experience with my adjudication due to mental issues; I was on a total of 14 different medications when I had this happen. I was on pain medication, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, blood pressure medication, neurontin, ambien, muscle relaxers (mind you I was on zanaflex) just to list some of the main ones. I have also been put under antesthesia at least ten times in the 18 months prior to this. I had been experiencing depression for a while and had been actually put on Effexor. When the physician thought that I was not having the best results from the Effexor they actually doubled my dosage although now I know I should have been told to gradually do this and they did not tell me that. This adjustment was done about 2 weeks before my “episode”. I can’t really tell you everything that happened that day because I honestly have no memory of most of it. I was taken off of everything except the Effexor, neurontin and antianxiety medications. After I was released from the state hospital my surgeon did put me back on the pain medication because of chronic pain again. I maintained but was gradually put back on several of the other medications until April and had yet another episode though not nearly as bad. I voluntarily went into a private facility then for 4 days and then was released on the same medications except for my pain medication which I was denied both stays as that was what was the main factor according to the faculties After my release that time I was experiencing horrible side effects and so I actually gradually took myself off of everything over a week except for my pain medication which yet again I was prescribed by my surgeon as he had made it clear I would have to have it because of my severe pain. I have not been on any medications other than my pain medication and my muscle relaxers since mid April 2015. This includes no blood pressure medication because it has been normal since I have stopped the other medications. I no longer have issues with anxiety or depression because we have finally gotten my pain levels down so that they are tolerable. In fact my family and my husband tells me that for the first time in years I am actual normal. My concern with this is that I was diagnosed with these problems and my gun rights were taken away from me and I have had no issues whatsoever since I have quit taking all of the medications that were suppose to “fix” me. I feel they actually broke me and made my situation horribly worse. I have since learned that severe pain that is uncontrolled can cause lack of sleep which can also cause depression. Now I’m no doctor but I can tell you that since my pain has been controlled a good bit better that I have been a functioning adult and have actually been a very happy person. I haven’t seen a phsychiotrist since April 2015. The fist thing these doctors done was blame all of this on pain medication and actually made my situation so much worse by taking it from me. They put me on medication that I clearly did not need to be on and tried to label me as someone who just wanted drugs. By the way when the papers were signed in my county for me to be adjudicated two physicians in my county signed off on this yet they had never examined me before then and the day I was taken to both of them neither physician even spoke one word to me much less actually examine me. They simply signed the papers. I live in a small town. With this my rights have been stripped. I don’t think this is right and I’m not sure how procedure works for that process but I honestly don’t think procedure was followed in my case. If that was procedure then our system is seriously broken. I now just want to see what I can do to get my gun rights back. Is this possible in my situation? I know this is very lengthy and I apologize but there are so many factors in my case and each contributed to this decision being made FOR ME. I’m not sure whip way to even turn from here.

  9. hair says:

    Ultimately, this comes down to the constitution. If you are mentally ill but you pass the written and shooting exam to get an LTC license, you respect the laws associated with the LTC ‘privilege’ then you should have the right to carry. However, just like someone without mental illness , if you violate the trust associated with LTC then you’ll lose that ‘privilege’.
    And whether you have a mental illness or not does not prevent you from having the right to defend yourself on your property.

    The only cure against kooks with guns is more sane ppl with guns.

  10. Wendy says:

    I went voluntarily into a mental institution under the advise of my doctor. I am not a violent person. I did not use my gun or threaten any one in any way. I was depressed and in a bad situation, I needed help. I am a law abiding citizen a good person. I did not do anything wrong. While in the hospital, I got a letter from the Chief of Police of my town saying that they were taking away my guns and permit because I had been confined to a mental hospital and I was no longer a suitable person to carry a weapon. I feel as though my second amendment rights are being violated. At least I had the guts to ask for help. There are a lot of depressed people with a gun who won’t ask for help. Mental health is treatable just like other forms of disease and illness, we should not be discriminated against because of it.

  11. Barr Jhonston says:

    I don’t like stigmatizing people and creating a elite classs of People in this Country who have rights under the constitution while others don’t ( start of a tyranical Goverment) . Classification of People as mentally ill has been used as a weapon to oppress persons who are diffrenet and political dissidents throughout history. Another problem with the idea is that there is no exact measurement tool to tell if a person is weird or has a mental illness. There is no exact measure to tell what degree a person is mentally ill. There is also no statistics that can predict what a person defined as mentally ill is going to due or that they pose more of a theat than a non ill person.
    People who are considerd not to be mentally ill kill thousounds of people per year mostly based upon greed, and personal animous twoards others.
    How about people that are wrongly instutionalized for having a mental illness which is later found to be false? How will those people clear their names and be treated like others? Howmany people are convicted and accused of crimes in this Country that are later found not to be guilty?
    If a person is that far out of touch with reality or acting in a manner that is way out of the norm’ people are going to see it. The problem is that people see it but don’t get involved.

  12. Andrew Harris says:

    I tried to get a rifle just so I can go hunting this year with my family, and I get DENIED because of being placed into a psychiatric hospital when I was under the age of 18, in fact when I was 12. I am 27 now never been placed back into a psychiatric hospital, have not been arrested for any form of violence and now just because I want to go and hunt I cannot own a gun. This is crazy, so its not ok to protect your family… Way to go government gun control, gun control… What about cops who kill people with their guns, is that ok? People are 50% more likely to be killed or shot by cop then a person with either a felony, misdomeanor or even a mental illness…. Get real!

  13. Drew says:

    I was involuntary committed to a hospital almost 10 years ago for going thru a bad divorce.In Okla,according to OSBI.I will never be allowed to get a ccw to protect my family.title 22 1290.11.So law abiding people like me get screwed.

  14. Jack Reed says:

    This is a difficult situation for everyone. We need people to feel comfortable to seek professional help to manage stress, anxiety, etc. to help prevent these incidents of violence. However, a very large number of people do not seek help out of fear they will lose their gun rights and or negatively impact job opportunities or even custody hearings.

    I will share that I would like to see someone to help me with my stress and occasional depression from the stress. However, I will not see anyone because I value my rights more. I am completing my Masters in I/O Psychology currently and have learned a lot along my academic journey to help myself. It’s sad because I know there are people out there who could help but I can not risk it.

    • I believe that your concerns may be somewhat exaggerated.Unless a patient has serious impulses to hurt someone with his car, hands or guns etc , there is no reason to feel that a therapist would speak out or take action

  15. Heather says:

    I’m disabled from PTSD& take psychiatric meds. Not suicidal or homicidal. Would like to get LTC

  16. Joseph sweet says:

    So your telling me I can’t go deer hunting because I took prescription pills and got depressed and went to pine rest mental health facility and I didn’t want to go 4 years ago and my counselor and psychologist says there is no reason I can’t own a gun of any kind what they say don’t matter I still can’t have a gun because the bipolar and pine rest go figure it’s our country there is no constitution anymore I feel it should be up to the mental health professionals not judgmental government but I guess I am screwed on ever hunting again with a rifle something I only did one time before my dad died and I loved it but I guess that’s out of the question

  17. Joseph sweet says:

    The pills were prescribed to me and alot of the pills that were prescribed to me made me depressed

  18. Gail Hines says:

    I have long since stopped needed “therapy” or mental health “help”. I am so much better now and have been for a few years. I did go and get cleared of any help by a psychiatrist but can’t get a gun permit in Alabama. Why? Is there anything I can do? I live in a rough neighborhood and need to be able to protect myself and my loved ones. I am very stable and feel frustrated. I understand the reasons the law is in place but there has to be something to help me. So far no one can. Please email me any suggestions. Thank you.

  19. Bobby McChesney says:

    As a combat veteran and a medically retired police officer who has been diagnosed with depression and PTSD as well as a personality disorder, I am unsettled by the idea that after over 20 years of service to our nation that due to the mental injuries (my word due to causation) I have to worry whether or not I can purchase a firearm. I still have my concealed carry deadly weapon permit and would only use it to protect myself or those I love. I know the laws having enforced them for 11years after serving as a ranger in the US Army. I am more proficient than most people due to training I have received, this doesn’t matter? We are granted rights not by government but by God. The government can only take away rights. Why are we trying to stigmatize a portion of the population even more by refusing them their rights because of what they “may” do?
    Thank you for your time and consideration

  20. Tom Williamson says:

    When I was a child I was involuntarily committed as for reasons i don’t recall. My only diagnoses are ADHD and OCD I was on medication until 2010 since then ive been gainfully employed went to school for auto mechanics and graduated. My hospitalization seemed very short under two weeks it seemed and I was 9 or 10 years old. I’ve never been considered a danger to others or myself. Would i have an issue obtaining an FID or any other lawful firearms permit?

  21. Tracy Valdez says:

    About 10 years ago my friend went through a terrible divorce her ex was mentally abusive, she had 3 grown step kids who were abusive to her, her 17 year old daughter ran away and was doing drugs, so out of desperation she took a handful of pills. When I talked to her she was very sorry that she went that route. She is doing so much better now. But I worry about her safety and she does also. She lives alone, and would like to get a GUN. But she’s so scared to go try, she doesn’t want to stand there and be humiliate if they do a back ground check. Because when she took the pills, the hospital sent her to mental health and she stayed I believe 5 days. Her doctor there had no problem he said letting her go! So my question, can she get a hand gun? Sorry so long lol

  22. My mom claimed that I was suicidal and went to the probate court and had me sent to a crappy hole in Travelers Rest,S.C. This was not the truth. I was just going through some grieving because my father died a few weeks before. How can I get my gun rights back?

  23. Kristina Henry says:

    I was petition/court-ordered involuntarily to a mental institution. Does that mean that I’m considered adjudicated mentally defective? Or just committed to a mental institution.?

  24. Ketamine Guy says:

    Dr. Blumentfield- you keep saying that a therapist should make the determination. I find that scary. Shouldn’t it be a Court? Therapists are not answerable to appellate courts or voters. I find most Psycho-professionals I have met to be judgmental and to have a “God” complex. Give me a judge and a ruling I can appeal any day. PS Psychiatry and the Psycho-Pharma complex only did my bipolar self-harm. Despite my therapist’s anger at my decision, I found Ketamine and it gave me my life back.

  25. Don says:

    I’d like to see something in the law that allows a person to be “reinstated” as not mentally ill after a certain amount of time of “good behavior” and the person is no longer required to see a psychiatrist.

    I was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder somewhere around the age of 30. Previous to that I had been a junior Army officer and served in the military for two years, from age 24 to 26, and had gone through 4 years of R.O.T.C. in college. I have an honorable discharge.

    Around the age of 50 I began working with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)with a home study course after not being able to function adequately to work for 3 years. However, I was never considered “disabled” by the Social Security Admin. and never received any type of help from them. That therapy helped me greatly. Subsequent working with it for about 4 years, my psychiatrist said he didn’t think I was bi-polar. Well, I never thought I was. It was life (how I viewed unfavorable events) that was causing mood swings, not “my brain”, so to speak.

    At the age of 68 I went off of all anti-depressant meds and my doctor released me from his care. No longer clinically depressed.

    So, would I or would I not be allowed to own a gun? I don’t currently, btw, except for pellet guns to get rid of neighborhood nuisances like squirrels. 🙂 ( thank you for your comment. You make a good case MB)

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