SAN FRANCISCO — A federal felon whose civil rights have been restored by a state after completion of a prison sentence can possess a gun, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
The ruling by the U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the first by any appellate court on the issue, gives a broad interpretation to a 1986 federal law allowing states to decide when certain former felons may have guns.
Federal law makes it a crime for a person convicted of a state or federal felony to possess a gun. But the 1986 law says gun possession would be legal if a state has erased the conviction under its own laws, granted a pardon or restored the felon's civil rights.
A state cannot erase or pardon a federal conviction. But in a 2-1 decision, the appeals court said an Arizona law that automatically restores the civil rights of first-offense felons after completion of their prison sentence covered federal felons.
That means a person convicted of a federal felony in Arizona, whose rights are later restored, can own a gun that is not prohibited by any other law. A number of other states have similar laws, said Brian Rademacher, a defense lawyer in the case.
For the most part, the court noted, states define and restore civil rights, such as the right to vote, serve on juries and hold public office. Because there are no federal procedures for restoring civil rights, the 1986 law must have been aimed at restoration of rights by a state, the court said.
The ruling overturned the Tucson conviction of Theodore Albert Geyler for having four guns in his house in 1987. Because of a 1977 federal felony conviction, Geyler was found guilty of being an ex-felon in possession of a gun, fined $2,500 and put on three years' probation.
Rademacher, an attorney for Geyler, said Arizona had narrowed its law since the case began and now restores rights automatically only if the previous conviction did not involve violence or use of a deadly weapon.
"What Congress intended is to let the states regulate this (ex-felon status)," Rademacher said. "It would be strange if two people lived next door to each other, one had a state conviction and one had a federal conviction, and the law was different as to who could possess a weapon. If a state says it's OK it should be OK."
Federal prosecutors in Tucson declined comment.
Overturning a ruling by U. S. District Judge Richard Bilby, the appeals court said Geyler's civil rights from his previous federal conviction had been restored by the state in 1979 after completion of his sentence, making him eligible to own a gun.
The ruling by Judge Stephen Reinhardt said the 1986 federal law did not distinguish between state and federal felonies and allowed gun ownership by anyone whose civil rights had been restored after a conviction.
"Congress was aware of the policy implications of resting federal firearms law on the varying laws of 50 states," Reinhardt wrote, noting that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had warned lawmakers that the 1986 statute would require examination of statutes in every state.
"There is no reason to believe that Congress would have wanted to accord greater benefits to state felons than to federal felons when state laws restore rights to both."
Reinhardt was joined by Judge Pierce Lively, visiting from the U. S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. In dissent, Judge Betty Fletcher said the 1986 law was aimed at overturning a 1983 Supreme Court ruling that allowed federal firearms prosecutions of former state felons who had won pardons or restoration of their rights.
"Congress' purpose in passing the amendment was to enable states to determine the effect of their own convictions," Fletcher wrote. "The amendment was not intended to give states the ability to restore to federal felons rights impaired by federal convictions."