3rd Circuit Upholds Federal Ban on Nonviolent Felons Owning Guns

First federal appeals court precedent since Supreme Court’s landmark Second Amendment ruling in June

3rd Circuit Upholds Federal Ban on Nonviolent Felons Owning Guns
Guns on display in Burbank, Calif., on June 23, 2022. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)
Matthew Vadum

Nonviolent felons can be barred from owning guns, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit held on Nov. 16 in the first major federal appellate court ruling to apply the Supreme Court’s new standard for reviewing Second Amendment cases.

The Supreme Court ruling gave rise to many new legal challenges to existing gun restrictions.

The 3rd Circuit ruling itself came in the context of a Pennsylvania man who challenged the ban after he was convicted of welfare fraud 27 years ago. At the time, he was ordered to pay a small fine and wasn't sentenced to prison time.

In a 6–3 decision on June 23 authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court held in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen that gun restrictions must be deeply rooted in U.S. history if they're to survive constitutional scrutiny.

In that ruling, the high court also stated that there was a constitutional right to bear firearms in public for self-defense and struck down New York’s law that required an applicant to demonstrate “proper cause” to obtain a license to carry a concealed handgun in public.

In Range v. Attorney General of the United States, court file 21-2835, a three-judge panel of the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit unanimously ruled (pdf) that because Bryan Range pleaded guilty in 1995 to felony-level welfare fraud in Pennsylvania, making false statements about his income to obtain $2,458 of food stamps, he may be deprived of the right to own a gun.

Range was sentenced to pay $2,458 in restitution, $288.29 in costs, and a $100 fine and serve three years of probation, even though he could have received up to five years in prison.

Under the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, individuals convicted of a felony, which is defined as any crime punishable by more than a year in prison, are permanently barred from owning firearms.

When Range tried to buy a hunting rifle, he was blocked because his would-be purchase was flagged by the federal background check system. He filed suit to strike down the ban, making the argument that the Second Amendment only permits the disarmament of “dangerous persons,” not nonviolent offenders, according to a summary provided by The Reload, a gun news publication.

Range argued that his “disarmament is inconsistent with the text and history of the Second Amendment and is therefore unconstitutional under” the Bruen ruling, the circuit court decision states.

“We disagree,” the opinion reads, because “history and tradition” show that only those people who are “law-abiding, responsible citizens” should enjoy the right to own guns.

Those “who have demonstrated disregard for the rule of law through the commission of felony and felony-equivalent offenses, whether or not those crimes are violent,” forfeit their Second Amendment rights. The government’s prohibition on nonviolent felons possessing firearms “is consistent with historical tradition,” according to the circuit court.

Such people are “categorically disqualified ... from possessing firearms based on a judgment that certain individuals were untrustworthy parties to the nation’s social compact.”

The court opinion states that some early gun regulations, which disarmed disfavored minority groups including Native Americans, blacks, indentured servants, and Catholics, were “repugnant” and “unconstitutional” because they were openly discriminatory.

Despite that history, those early laws “demonstrate legislatures had the power and discretion to use status as a basis for disarmament, and to show that status-based bans did not historically distinguish between violent and nonviolent members of disarmed groups.”

Pepperdine law professor Jake Charles said he agreed with the reasoning behind the new decision.

“The court relies on a lot of what it calls ‘repugnant’ historical laws disarming folks on racial, ethnic, political [and] religious grounds. But it notes (which seems plainly right to me) that Bruen *demands* this inquiry by requiring a focus on history,” Charles said in a tweet.

“Often that history is ugly.”

The Firearms Policy Coalition, which represents Range, didn't respond by press time to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.