American gun control laws have faced enforcement problems from the beginning. To help combat this, Congress transformed the ATF from an Internal Revenue Service division into an independent bureau, first within the Treasury Department, then in the Department of Justice [sources: Federal Register; Homeland Security Act of 2002 (6 U.S.C. 531)].
However, the ATF, which has been without a director since 2006, has repeatedly seen its powers to track weapons, inspect gun shops and revoke licenses curtailed by Congress [source: The New York Times]. As of February 2013, ATF numbers are on the rise, and President Obama is pushing for confirmation of a bureau director [source: Schmidt].
The State of the States
According to the National Rifle Association's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Washington ban felons from possessing firearms. Florida and Idaho bar felons from guns unless their rights are restored. Oregon and New York do, too, but Oregon exempts certain offenses, whereas New York adds others to the list [source: NRA-ILA].
Mississippi also requires rights restoration -- unless an appropriate court issues a certificate of rehabilitation. Indiana's law bans selling or giving a gun to a known or suspected felon. Arizona's limited ban mostly deals with felons convicted of crimes involving a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument; West Virginia's and Ohio's concern "felonies of violence," to which Ohio adds those involving a "drug of abuse" [source: NRA-ILA].
Maryland's and Iowa's state constitutions do not include a right to bear arms, and the two states do not grant felons permits. Alaska and Missouri merely ban felons from carrying concealable firearms, and Missouri's restrictions only apply for "five years after conviction or confinement." Montana does not appear to bar felons from gun possession, but allows its local governments to do so [source: NRA-ILA].
Regarding gun rights reinstatement, Minnesota, Montana and Ohio automatically do so for nonviolent offenders following time served and allow violent offenders to petition for restoration. In North Dakota, reinstatement for felons automatically kicks in 10 years after time served, even for criminals who employed violence or intimidation [source: Luo].
On the other end of the spectrum are states that require a pardon prior to reinstatement, such as California, Georgia and Nebraska. Washington state law compels judges to return gun rights to felons who live conviction-free for five years [source: Luo].
But wait: How does a state returning felon gun rights affect the federal ban?
Here is where things get a little strange. If a state restores a convicted felon's civil rights -- including the right to vote, serve on juries and hold public office -- then the federal ban no longer holds [sources: Luo; 18 USC § 921(a)(33)(B)(ii)]. However, if a state restores a felon's gun rights, but not the other listed rights, then possessing a gun remains a federal crime, and the feds can arrest that person and charge him or her with possession [source: Luo].
As of January 2013, how rulings such as Heller and McDonald will ultimately affect these issues remains an open question. Meanwhile, as ATF Program Manager-Industry Operations Investigator George Semonick plainly puts it, "ATF enforces laws as they are written."