- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 11, 2002


The Supreme Court blocked felons from going straight to court to get their gun rights restored, rejecting arguments yesterday that those people have nowhere else to go.

Justices didn't get into the constitutional arguments about limitations on the right to keep and bear arms. In a brief decision, they ruled unanimously that courts can intervene only after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) has rejected a request.

However, Congress already has barred the ATF from considering such requests. The high court's message for a Texas man who wanted to get around the ban: too bad.

The case had the backing of gun-rights supporters, who contend that Thomas Bean and others convicted of nonviolent crimes should not permanently lose their gun rights.

The Bush administration argued against Mr. Bean, despite the Justice Department's position that the Constitution guarantees an individual right to gun ownership.

Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the court's conservative members, wrote the decision. He said the ATF, not a judge, was best prepared to look into whether an applicant could be a danger to public safety. The ruling mentions the ATF ban, but offers no opinion of it.

The Supreme Court could be drawn into a larger gun-rights case soon. An appeals court ruled last week that the Second Amendment does not give Americans a personal right to own firearms. The ruling, by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is expected to be appealed.

Mr. Bean, a gun dealer, was convicted of violating Mexican law after officers found 200 rounds of ammunition in his car during a dinner trip across the border four years ago. Mr. Bean can return to lower courts to argue that the Mexican conviction does not classify him as a felon in the United States.

Felons are prohibited by federal law from carrying guns, but they can ask the government for exceptions.

When Mr. Bean tried to get back his gun rights, and his livelihood, he was supported by two police chiefs, a sheriff, a judge, a prosecutor and a Baptist preacher. Because the ATF wouldn't review his case, he sued.

A lower court restored Mr. Bean's firearms license, but yesterday's decision reversed that.

Each year since 1992, Congress has included in the ATF's budget a ban on using money to do background checks for felons, which cost an estimated $3,700 each.

Nelson Lund, a law professor at George Mason University, said the court's decision moves the debate to the Capitol.

"Congress created this situation, and they can fix it, which they may do when the Republicans have control of both houses and the presidency," Mr. Lund said.

Mathew Nosanchuk, litigation director for the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control group, predicted the court's decision will end the effort to give felons gun rights.

"I don't think any member of Congress wants to be standing up in favor of restoring gun privileges to convicted felons," he said.

The National Rifle Association did not file arguments in the case, but other gun-rights supporters backed Mr. Bean.

"If courts can make decisions about whether someone can be executed, it seems to me that they ought to be competent to make a decision about whether somebody can have their rights restored," said William Gustavson, a lawyer for the Second Amendment Foundation.

Separately yesterday, the Supreme Court threw out a death-penalty case that was argued last month, apparently because of concerns about whether the case was properly appealed to the high court.

The decision means Tennessee can move ahead with plans to execute Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman, although his lawyers can try other ways to get his case back before the Supreme Court.

Abdur'Rahman was convicted of fatally stabbing a man in an attack in which he also wounded the man's girlfriend in Nashville, Tenn., in 1986.

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