Pennsylvania State Trooper Michael L. Keyes is in an odd situation.
When on duty, he can carry a gun.
Yet while off duty, he is barred by law from possessing any firearms, because seven years ago he suffered from deep depression, repeatedly tried to kill himself by taking drugs and was involuntarily committed for mental health treatment.
Keyes’ latest attempt to be allowed to have a gun all the time was rejected this week by the state Superior Court.
That court upheld an earlier ruling by Perry County Senior Judge Keith B. Quigley that Keyes’ involuntary mental health commitment constitutes an unsurmountable legal barrier to his ability to possess a gun while off duty.
An attempt to reach Keyes’ attorney, Joshua Prince, for comment on the case wasn’t successful Thursday. Keyes has been involved in legal battles ever since completing his mental health treatment. He also had to fight to be reinstated to the state police.
He was serving as a state trooper in Newport, when he was placed on temporary leave and ordered into mental health treatment in 2006. He finished treatment in less than a year and had to battle to get his job back, even after his doctor cleared him to go back to work.
An arbitrator’s decision ordering his return to limited duty was fought by the state police, but ultimately was upheld by Commonwealth Court. The state Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that ruling, and he was placed back on duty in 2010. In 2012, Commonwealth Court also ordered that Keyes be awarded nearly $16,000 in back pay.
Keyes began battling for full reinstatement of his ability to carry firearms in 2008. The problem, according to court filings, is that the federal Gun Control Act bars those who have been subject to involuntary mental health commitments from possessing guns.
In its ruling issued Tuesday, the Superior Court found there is no way for Keyes to have the record of his involuntary mental health commitment expunged. That means Keyes cannot surmount the federal ban on his having a gun off-duty, President Judge Emeritus Kate Ford Elliott wrote in the state court’s opinion.
That prohibition does not amount to a breach of Keyes’ rights under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Ford Elliott found, because it applies only to an “extremely small” class of citizens and has a solid public safety basis.
“The dangers inherent in the possession of firearms by the mentally ill are manifest,” the judge wrote. And while Keyes argued that he is no longer mentally ill, “a present clean bill of health is no guarantee that a relapse is not possible,” Ford Eliiott noted.
“Given the extreme potential harm attendant to the possession of deadly weapons by the mentally ill, and the risk of relapse,” the judge wrote, “we see an important government interest in controlling the availability of firearms for those who have ever been adjudged mentally defective or have ever been committed to a mental institution but are now deemed to be cured.”
It is “rational” for Keyes to still be allowed to have a gun on-duty because then he is under the supervision and observation of superior officers and his fellow troopers, Ford Elliott concluded.
“Were [Keyes] to again fall into a depressive state with suicidal ideation, it would be much more likely to be discovered while he is on-duty and his superiors could then restrict his access to state police firearms,” she wrote.