Felons cannot ask courts for firearms Supreme Court upholds gun ban

By Charles Lane
Washington Post
Dec. 11, 2002

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that convicted felons who can't get their right to own firearms reinstated by a Treasury Department agency may not turn to the federal courts for help.

The decision bolsters a key gun-control law to keep weapons away from criminals.

The nine justices unanimously held that a federal district court lacked the authority to order Texas gun dealer Thomas Lamar Bean's firearms privileges restored after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms declined to consider his request because Congress had refused to give it money to do so.

"(M)ere inaction by ATF does not invest a district court with independent jurisdiction to act on an application," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the opinion for the court.

Federal law bars gun possession by felons, but felons may ask the secretary of the Treasury, through ATF, to give them a second chance if it determines that they do not pose a threat to the community. But for the last 10 years, Congress, concerned about reports that dangerous people were exploiting this provision and then committing sometimes violent offenses, has denied ATF any money to implement it.

When Bean approached ATF in 1999 to seek reinstatement of his gun privileges, which had been stripped because of a one-time conviction for illegally bringing bullets into Mexico, the agency sent his letter back. A Texas district judge, noting Bean's otherwise clean record, restored his privileges based on a part of the law that gives courts power to review "denials" by the ATF, and last year the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed the order, citing Bean's "almost incredible plight."

The 5th Circuit's remark echoed the concerns of gun-rights advocates, who argue that the ban on funding ATF gun-privilege restorations is unfair to many people who commit technical or minor violations of the law.

But the Bush administration, otherwise sympathetic to gun owners' concerns, appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.

Separately, the court voted Tuesday to dismiss the case of a Tennessee death-row inmate who said the state wanted to execute him without hearing his claim that his conviction and sentence were marred by prosecutorial misconduct.

The justices made this announcement after they had accepted briefs and heard oral arguments on the matter.

But during the course of the case, it became clear that members of the court were concerned that they might not actually have jurisdiction to hear the appeal by Abu Ali Abdur'Rahman, convicted of murdering a Nashville drug dealer in 1987.

Abdur'Rahman said he was entitled to a new hearing under an obscure provision of the federal rules of civil procedure, but lower courts refused, saying his request was barred under federal law limiting the number of constitutional challenges prisoners may mount.

The Supreme Court's dismissal of the case creates no binding precedent on lower courts but does uphold a decision denying his appeal for a new hearing.

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