As most people know, the Second Amendment grants Americans the right to bear arms. Few things can impede this right, but one of the most common ways a person’s right to own a firearm can be restricted is if that person is convicted of certain crimes. A federal statute prohibits anyone who was convicted of a crime carrying a potential prison sentence of more than one year from owning a firearm; however, excluded from this statute is any state misdemeanor that carries a sentence of less than two years. In a recent case, two people who wanted to own firearms challenged the constitutionality of this statute as it applied to them.
In this case, one person had been convicted of corrupting a minor, a misdemeanor punishable by up to five years in prison, following a consensual sexual relationship he had with a 17-year-old co-worker when he was 41. The other person had been convicted of unlawfully carrying a handgun without a license, a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of three years in prison. Despite these potential maximum sentences, neither person spent any time in prison. Several years later, each of these men were living in Pennsylvania when they wished to buy guns so they could protect themselves and their families. However, they refrained from doing so in fear of violating the federal statute. Therefore, they each filed a complaint in Federal District Court seeking injunctive and declaratory relief, alleging that the statute was unconstitutional as applied to them.
Their case eventually made it to a federal appeals court – The United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals. At this stage, the court ultimately held that if the crimes were not serious felonies then the statute would be unconstitutional as applied to the appellants. In assessing the seriousness of their crimes, the court acknowledged that the maximum sentence of a crime is a reliable way of determining its severity, but that they need not defer blindly to it. Indeed, the court acknowledged that there was no reliable benchmark for deciding when an offense is serious enough to deprive a citizen of his Second Amendment rights. The court noted that Congress tried to ensure that only serious crimes would deprive a person of their rights by including the section exempting any state misdemeanor punishable by less than two years, but the court believed that this provision still painted with too broad of a brush, as a state’s classification of a crime as a misdemeanor is a powerful statement that it does not believe it to be serious enough to deprive a person of their rights.
Further, it was notable that neither appellant’s crime contained any element of violence or force, which would logically be the primary reason for revoking a person’s right to bear arms. Additionally, while each appellant’s misdemeanor could have potentially left them incarcerated for more than two years, neither spent any time in prison at all based on the circumstances of their cases. Because of this, the court held that the two appellants had successfully distinguished their crimes from those that had traditionally precluded offenders from owning guns and ultimately, that their second amendment rights had wrongfully been restricted. As a result, they were declared eligible to purchase and possess firearms as if the crimes had never happened.
Update: In June 2017 the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the government’s appeal of the Third Circuit ruling, thereby making the ruling final.
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