Can a felon own a gun in the United States?

By: Nicholas Gerbis  | 

The State of the States

Gun rights, rules and regulations vary widely by state and barely stand still long enough to draw a bead on them, but here's our best snapshot [sources: Luo; Myer].

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."

Author's Note: Can a felon own a gun in the United States?

 I completed an article on whether countries with stricter gun laws really have less crime or fewer homicides. While writing that article and this one, the news continued to deliver reports of shooting after shooting — some large, some small, all appalling.

For example, Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl who attended high school a mile from President Obama's house and performed with her high school band at his inaugural weekend, was shot and killed when a gunman opened fire on a group of teenagers at a Chicago park. No side of the gun debate was slow in using the event to champion its point of view.

I don't claim to know the answer to gun violence, but I do suspect that there's little we can meaningfully say about guns, or the effectiveness of gun policies, while so many loopholes gape in the statutes, while regulations go unenforced, and while state and local laws remain such a hodgepodge.

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