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:
- Extended relief privileges to those who had been convicted of crimes involving a firearm, involuntarily committed to a mental institution, or who had violated the Gun Control Act of 1968.
- Added wording expanding the ability of federal courts to review decisions by ATF to deny relief.
- Amended federal law so that restoration of civil rights by a state automatically restored the privilege of firearm possession unless the state law or individual pardon expressly excluded the ability to possess firearms. Prior to McClure-Volkmer, the federal “relief from disability” mechanism was the only way for a convicted felon to regain his firearms privileges.2
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
|Fiscal Year||Full-Time Employees||Cost|
Source: ATF Public Affairs Office
The names of those granted relief are required to be printed in the Federal Register along with the court of conviction. ATF does not print the crimes of conviction. In 1989 the Violence Policy Center requested copies of the conviction records and ATF investigations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and specifically requested the records of Alan M. Gottlieb, head of the pro-gun Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and founder of the Second Amendment Foundation. The agency refused to release all but Gottlieb’s records. Gottlieb had pleaded guilty in 1984 to tax evasion. Two years later he applied for relief. In a pre-investigation interview Gottlieb explained to ATF agents that because of his involvement with the gun lobby and the fact that he was a director of the U.S. Ammunition Company, it was “awkward for him not being able to handle the ammunition product of the company…[and it was] also awkward for him not to handle firearms when he represents Citizens Committee to Keep and Bear Arms and the Second Amendment Foundation.” Gottlieb’s ATF investigative report (See Figure I-4 on pages five through 11) illustrates the comprehensive nature of the ATF investigation: interviews with regional law enforcement agencies, neighbors, friends, business associates, and arresting and probation officers. In recommending relief, Gottlieb’s investigating officer described him as a “very devoted gun person…into conservative Right Wing stuff.”
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
- Robert Christopher Gunn pleaded guilty in February 1980 to two counts of delivery of a controlled substance, narcotics or cocaine and was sentenced to three to 20 years for each charge. In 1989, having been released from prison, he received his relief.
- In 1976, 19-year-old Jon Wayne Young pleaded guilty in Minnesota to aggravated assault and aggravated robbery. Young had a history of sex-related offenses dating back to the age of 13. At Young’s sentencing the judge stated: “You placed another person’s life in jeopardy, in danger, and that person could have been killed by you….[Y]ou don’t have enough control of your own actions to prevent that sort of thing. It is just lucky, fortunate, that the girl wasn’t killed, and the reason probably that she wasn’t killed is that she submitted to you but had she fought you undoubtedly she might have been killed, probably would have been killed.” In analyzing Young, a doctor had written, “I was struck by the number of times therapy had been terminated with the feeling that he was unlikely to get into trouble again only to have him return once more. At this point I believe that the best predictor of Mr. Young’s future behavior is his past behavior….” Young received his relief in 1989.
- In February 1981 Jerome Sanford Brower pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of conspiracy to transport explosives in foreign commerce with intent to use unlawfully, violating the Arms Export Control Act, and unlawfully transporting hazardous material in foreign commerce. Brower had been part of an international terrorist plot masterminded by former CIA gents Edwin Wilson and Francis Terpil. In 1976, Brower, a federally licensed explosives dealer, met with Wilson and Terpil and agreed to supply explosives for an unspecified “operation” in Libya. In June, after meetings with Libyan officials, Terpil drafted a “secret proposal” outlining a six-month terrorist training program to be conducted for the Libyans. Brower transported explosives to Libya and instructed the Libyans in defusing the explosive devices. Brower was eventually allowed to plead guilty and received a four-month prison sentence and was fined $5,000. He received his relief four years later.
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).
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