With Restrictions Eased, Thousands of Felons Get Their Guns Back

If you are convicted of a felony, under federal law you forfeit your right to bear arms.

But an investigation by The New York Times found that, every year, states restore gun rights for thousands of felons, often with little or no legal review.

The practice became commonplace, The Times said, in the late 1980s — after Congress, prodded by the National Rifle Association, began allowing states to dictate how gun rights are reinstated.

In some states, restoration is automatic for nonviolent felons as soon as they complete their sentences. In a handful of states, even violent felons face few barriers. In other cases, judges make the decisions, but the standards are vague.

State law enforcement agencies have scant statistics on the practice. But the Times cited a researcher who concluded that “in more than half the states felons have a reasonable chance of getting back their gun rights.”

The newspaper’s examination of hundreds of restoration cases in several states uncovered tragic instances of felons who regained their gun rights and went on to commit violent crimes.

One case involved Erik Zettergren, a convicted felon who shot to death a man in the small southeastern Washington town of Endicott in 2005. Zettergren fired a shot to the victim’s temple at point blank range after discovering him in bed with Zettergren’s girlfriend.

Two months earlier, Zettergren’s gun rights were restored without a hearing, under a state law that gave the judge no leeway to deny the application as long as certain requirements were met.

That reinstatement came even though Zettergren had two previous felony convictions and a history of mental health problems.

Since 1995 in Washington, a Times analysis found, “more than 3,300 felons and people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors have regained their gun rights…— 430 in 2010 alone.” And among those felons, more than 200 went on to commit new felonies, “including murder,  assault in the first and second degree, child rape and drive-by shooting.”

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