Gun Ownership after a Felony Conviction

A felony conviction under state and federal law carries a huge number of collateral consequences of which many individuals accepting plea bargains are totally unaware.  Some of these consequences restrict eligibility for welfare and entitlement programs, but others sever fundamental constitutional rights. For example, the right to vote is stripped of anyone serving a prison sentence or on parole in more than half of all states.  One of the most polemic consequences of a felony conviction is the inability to own a firearm.

In 1968, Congress passed the Federal Gun Control Act which prohibited gun sales to persons considered to be a threat to public safety.  This category was clarified and defined in the 1986 with the Firearm Owners Protection Act to include people convicted of a felony in any court.  The 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act expanded gun ownership restrictions on individuals convicted of domestic violence, regardless of the severity of the crime, while also requiring criminal background checks on most gun sales.

Owning a gun for personal protection was not actually considered a fundamental constitutional right until the 2008 Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. In that case, for the first time, the right to bear arms was acknowledged as greater than the Revolution-era context of forming a militia. The recent expansion of the Second Amendment has opened some doors for challenging the laws which strip convicted felons of the right to own or purchase a firearm, despite Justice Antonin Scalia explicitly stating in his opinion that restricting gun ownership on convicted felons should not be doubted. In 2013, as part of a larger gun rights debate in Colorado, State Representative Perry Buck sponsored a bill to allow non-violent felons the right to bear arms.  Particularly since the rights of previously convicted felons to own guns was restricted by state law in 1994 in the wake of the federal Brady Act, this bill was an exciting prospect to many in the state long awaiting the full reinstatement of their constitutional rights in spite of very old, often non-violent, convictions. But the current of the gun control zeitgeist was for more restrictions on gun ownership, not less, and so the bill was unanimously voted down and never left committee.

The social science is mixed as to whether restricting gun ownership reduces violence or crime.  For example, recidivism rates are alarmingly high with approximately three quarters of individuals who complete state-imposed sentences getting arrested again within 5 years of release. Some would draw the conclusion that restrictions on gun purchasing and ownership serve to protect the larger community from criminals who will inevitably reoffend.  Others might say that the vast majority of crimes committed are non-violent crimes, and, moreover, gun laws do nothing to address the huge number of guns for sale in illegal markets. Either way, individuals with felony convictions have made some strides in restoring the right to bear arms on both the state and federal level. Meanwhile, the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association has been walking a fine line between promoting restoration of gun rights for non-violent felons and maintaining a hard-on-crime policy.

The right to own and purchase firearms is complicated, controversial, and consequential when it comes to individuals with felony convictions. None of that is likely to change anytime soon, even if the laws surrounding this issue will.

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