Putting Guns Back Into Criminals' Hands
100 Case Studies of Felons Granted Relief From Disability Under Federal Firearms Laws
Section One: A Convicted Felons' Second Chance Club
In September 1991 the Violence Policy Center1 revealed that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the agency charged with enforcing the nation's federal firearms laws, was spending millions of taxpayer dollars annually to help convicted felons--including those involved in drug dealing, violent crimes, and terrorism--legally regain the privilege of possessing firearms.
Under federal law, convicted felons automatically lose the privilege of possessing firearms. Yet as the result of a 1965 amendment to the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, convicted felons can apply to ATF for "relief" from the "disability" of not being able to possess a gun. The 1965 law was passed as a congressional favor to firearms manufacturer Winchester, a division of Olin Mathieson Corporation. In 1962 Olin Mathieson pleaded guilty to felony counts stemming from a kickback scheme involving Vietnamese and Cambodian pharmaceutical importers. Because of its parent company's conviction, Winchester could no longer ship firearms in interstate commerce. The law was enacted to allow Winchester to stay in business and specifically excluded those convicted of firearms crimes.
Because of its broad wording and loose interpretation by ATF, the law soon became a convicted felons' second-chance club. Pursuant to 18 USC Section 925(c), relief can be granted if: "the circumstances regarding the conviction, and the applicant's record and reputation, are such that the applicant will not be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety and that the granting of the relief would not be contrary to the public interest." In 1986, the National Rifle Association-drafted McClure-Volkmer firearms decontrol bill dramatically expanded the universe of convicted felons who could once again legally possess firearms.
The McClure-Volkmer bill:
In the last decade, ATF has processed more than 22,000 applications for relief. Between 1985 and 1990, approximately one third of those seeking relief were eventually granted it (see Chart I-1 and I-2). (Of those not granted relief, ATF estimates on average that a third drop out at some point during the process and that a third are denied relief.)
Since 1985, the relief from disability budget has steadily climbed from $2.7 million in fiscal year 1985 to $4.2 million in fiscal year 1991 (see Chart I-3 below).
Chart I-3: Relief From Disability Program Budget, Fiscal Year 1985-1991
Source: ATF Public Affairs Office
After a year of protracted negotiations with ATF for further information (ATF claimed Gottlieb's file was released as the result of his status as a public figure), the agency refused to release the documents. The Violence Policy Center then independently obtained the original court records of randomly chosen applicants. A random sample of 30 cases of the thousands of names that appear in the Federal Register yielded convictions for drug dealing, sex crimes, and terrorism. o
Soon after releasing this information, the Violence Policy Center filed an appeal with ATF regarding its FOIA request for the original investigative reports. In December 1991, having prevailed upon appeal, the Violence Policy Center reached an agreement with ATF to receive 100 consecutive cases from a specified time period. In the interest of expediting the release, VPC agreed to ATF's condition that for all cases the agency would delete the names, locations, and much of the time frame. These cases are detailed in Section III: 100 Case Studies of Felons Granted Relief From Disability on page 21.
As the result of the Violence Policy Center's work documenting the ATF relief from disability program, on February 27, 1992, Representative Larry Smith (D-FL), Representative Ed Feighan (D-OH), Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and Senator Paul Simon (D-IL) held a press conference to announce the introduction of legislation to prohibit ATF from granting relief to convicted felons, in effect ending the program. The program was zero-funded in fiscal year 1993 and for each subequent year. In June 1995, the National Rifle Association and Republican members of the Treasury Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee attempted unsuccessfully to revive funding for the program for fiscal 1996. Legislation to permanently end the program was re-introduced in the 104th Congress by Senators Lautenberg and Simon, and Representatives Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Ed Markey (D-MA).
1) The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on firearms and violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals.
2) Two federal circuit courts have ruled that felons whose rights are restored by state law need not resort to the federal remedy in order to lawfully possess firearms. Morover, such felons may not be prosecuted under federal law for unlawful possession of a firearm. U.S. v. Gomez, 911 F.2d. (9th Cir. 1990), U.S. v. Edwards, 946 F.2d. 1347 (8th Cir. 1991).
All contents � 2002 Violence Policy Center
The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals. The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related death and injury.