Timothy Noah

Forget Ballots. Should Ex-Cons Get Guns?

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At last night's Republican debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., we heard the candidates talk about whether ex-cons should vote and we heard the candidates talk about the right to bear arms. At the next debate, I'd like to hear the candidates talk about whether ex-cons should bear arms.

Asked about Mitt Romney's attacks on his candidacy, Rick Santorum complained that Romney's Super PAC had an ad that said he favored allowing felons to vote from prison, when in fact what Santorum favored was allowing felons to vote after they've served their prison sentences. Santorum asked Romney: "Do you believe people who havewho were felons, who served their time, who have extendedexhausted their parole and probation, should they be given the right to vote?" After Romney dithered a bit, Santorum added: "This is a huge deal in the African-American community, because we have very high rates of incarceration, disproportionately high rates, particularly with drug crimes, in the African-American community." Finally Romney said: "I don’t think people who have committed violent crimes should be allowed to vote again. That’s my own view." This drew wild applause from the audience, an ugly one even by the standards of this GOP primary season.

Later, moderator Juan Williams asked Romney how, in light of his having signed, as Massachusetts governor, the first assault-weapon ban in the country, and raised fees on gun owners, Romney can "convince gun owners that you will be an advocate for them as president." Romney answered that the state gun lobby had supported his bill, then genuflected before the Second Amendment and concluded, "I do not believe in new laws restricting gun ownership and gun use." Williams then reminded Santorum that he'd voted in Congress in favor of trigger locks on handguns and background checks on purchasers of guns at gun shows. Santorum answered that the National Rifle Association supported these bills; asserted that he voted against the Clinton-era assault weapon ban; genuflected before the Second Amendment; said he played "a leadership role" in passing a bill shielding gun manufacturers from liability; and noted that Ron Paul had voted against this bill. Paul said he voted against it because he was opposed to "national tort law." He also said, "I’m the one that offers allall the legislation to repeal the gun bans that have been going on.... So that’s a bi a bit of an overstretch toto say that I’ve done away with the Second Amendment."

Federal law prohibits anyone convicted of a felony from owning a gun. Seems like kind of a good idea, no? The worst an ex-con is likely to do if given the right to vote is vote for a Democrat. (Because ex-cons are disproportionately African American and/or low-income, they tend to vote Democratic.) But give an ex-con a gun and there's a decent chance he'll use it to commit a crime. (According to a 1999 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, not allowing felons to buy guns reduces the likelihood that they'll commit a violent or gun-related crime by up to 30 percent.) 

One deeply unfortunate but hardly surprising consequence of District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 Supreme Court decision affirming a Second Amendment right to bear arms regardless of whether one belonged to a "well-regulated" (or even poorly-regulated) militia, was its acceleration of a movement by the NRA to restore gun rights to felons at the state level, federal prohibition be damned. Michael Luo of the New York Times reported last year that in at least 11 states "many" nonviolent felons, sometimes after a brief probationary period, are automatically permitted to own guns after they've served their sentences. In Ohio, Minnesota, and Virginia, violent felons can petition to have their gun-ownership rights restored, and in Georgia and Nebraska "scores" of pardons that specifically allow convicted felons to own guns are issued every year. Even the federal prohibition has included an appeals process for the past 47 years thanks to a "relief from disability" program initiated at the request of gun manufacturers back in 1965. One pardon attorney quoted by Luo estimated that felons have a decent chance of eventually being permitted to own guns in more than half the states. "By [Republicans'] logic," Marie Diamond wrote on the liberal ThinkProgress Web site, "millions of ex-convicts can be trusted with guns, but not with ballots."

I'd like to hear the candidates weigh in on whether they support the federal ban on felony ex-cons owning guns. Should it be repealed? If so, how do they justify giving ex-cons guns but not ballots? Maybe they'll cop out by saying it's something more properly decided at the state level. But gee, we tried here in D.C. to decide at the state (well, "district") level not to allow guns at all, only to have the Supreme Court tell us that (unlike something trivial like voting) it was none of our business; this was a federal matter. As a liberal and as an American I want to know: Are Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry soft on crime when it comes to letting ex-felons own guns? 

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