Nonviolent Felons Shouldn’t Lose Their Second Amendment Rights

In 1989, Larry Hatfield fudged his employment records to get some extra money from the Railroad Retirement Board. He was caught and pled guilty to the federal crime of making a false statement, and was sentenced to a fine and (at the government’s recommendation) no prison time. Since then, Hatfield has lived his life without incident, incurring nary as much as a parking ticket. He doesn’t fight, do drugs, or cause problems. Hatfield has lived as a completely law-abiding citizen for decades.

Hatfield’s neighborhood, however, has changed for the worst, so he wants to own a firearm to defend himself in his home. But the intersection of an odd federal law—18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)—and the ever-expanding idea of what a “felony” is has seen his right to keep and bear arms stripped away. That old conviction for lying to the Retirement Board now restricts his right to armed self-defense. While his conduct in 1989 was not upstanding, permanently stripping Hatfield of his core Second Amendment right seems an excessive punishment—one that puts the government in the interesting position of having argued that Hatfield is both so non-dangerous so as to have been recommended zero days in prison, but so dangerous that he can never be trusted with a gun.

Hatfield sued in federal court and won. The district judge agreed that permanently banning all felons—whether violent or not—from owning firearms was unconstitutional. The government has appealed that ruling to the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Because the Second Amendment applies, on its face, to all Americans, Cato has filed a brief supporting Hatfield. Across-the-board felon disarmament is not only unconstitutional as applied to Hatfield—a non-violent felon who served no prison time—but with respect to all non-violent felons.

There is no longstanding precedent supporting the government’s position. In fact, Congress enacted a provision restoring gun rights to felons that don’t pose a threat to public safety, indicating a tacit acceptance that “felon” as a category is excessively broad in relation to the government’s stated purpose of protecting the public. Section 922’s operation as a categorical elimination of rights for a broad class of people is both beyond what was historically acceptable and without a meaningful tie to public safety.

The excessive breadth of modern felonies—including things as irrelevant to public safety as improper packaging of lobsters—unconstitutionally removes many individuals’ rights to self-defense. These laws also hurt minorities and the poor, the people most likely to become victims of crime and receive the least police assistance.

In Hatfield v. Sessions, the Seventh Circuit should uphold the lower court’s ruling and find the permanent removal of Hatfield’s right to defend himself unconstitutional.