Guns, felons, and restoration rights

A New York Times investigation of several states shows that convicted felons and other criminals are have their access to guns restored in spite of state laws and widespread public perception that convicted criminals should not have access to firearms after being released from prison and mental health centers.

Federal law prohibits criminals with felony convictions from owning firearms, even after completing their sentences. However, thousands of felons have those rights reinstated in states with permissive laws and procedures for restoring their gun rights. This includes persons convicted of violent crimes in several states where felons convicted of first-degree murder and manslaughter are restored their gin rights.

In recent years, major victories by the National Rifle Association, including the Supreme Court decision in DC v. Heller, which rejected the District of Columbia’s handgun ban on the grounds that individuals have a constitutional right to own guns, has eroded the political will to enforce the nation’s most common sense gun laws. Congress started allowing states to determine their own procedures for restoring gun rights to convicted felons, but in many states with strong pro-gun lobbies and public support, this has led to increasingly permissive and alarmingly low thresholds for returning guns into the hands of criminals, which is out of step with the public’s understanding.

According to the review conducted by the NYT, “This gradual pulling back of what many Americans have unquestioningly assumed was a blanket prohibition has drawn relatively little public notice. Indeed, state law enforcement agencies have scant information, if any, on which felons are getting their gun rights back, let alone how many have gone on to commit new crimes.”

Although data is lacking because of the failure to regularize information about gun ownership, preliminary analysis shows that “Since 1995, more than 3,300 felons and people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors have regained their gun rights in the state — 430 in 2010 alone — according to the analysis of data provided by the state police and the court system. Of that number, more than 400 — about 13 percent — have subsequently committed new crimes, the analysis found. More than 200 committed felonies, including murder, assault in the first and second degree, child rape and drive-by shooting.”

Such permissive restoration laws not only diminishes public safety but erodes public confidence that the constitutional right of individuals to own firearms is being properly balanced by law-makers against the rights of all other citizens to safety and security. Without federal oversight, permissive states will continue to restore gun rights to criminals, which runs contrary to the claim of the NRA and other pro-gun advocates that common sense gun laws already on the books should be enforced.