Washington The Supreme Court slammed the door Tuesday on convicted felons who want to own guns.
In a unanimous decision, justices overturned lower courts in Texas that had reinstated the gun privileges of Thomas Lamar Bean, who spent four months in a Mexican prison on a conviction of smuggling ammunition across the border.
U.S. law bans anyone with a felony conviction from obtaining a gun, even if the conviction did not occur on U.S. soil. Although there is an appeals process on the books for felons who want to fight to get their gun privileges back, Congress cut off the money for it in 1992.
Bean, a firearms dealer, had a spotless criminal record until a planned night out in Mexico after a gun show four years ago in Laredo, Tex. Bean said he inadvertently crossed the border into Mexico with 200 bullets in his car, which an assistant had left there.
Bean was convicted of smuggling ammunition, which was then a felony in Mexico, and was imprisoned. Months later, a U.S.-Mexican treaty allowed him to return home.
With the support of a Texas sheriff, a prosecutor and two police chiefs, Bean applied to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to get his gun privileges back. He was informed that the ATF was unable to act on his request because of the funding ban.
Lawmakers who stripped the funding from the program were worried that violent felons were rearming themselves at taxpayers' expense. A study from the Violence Policy Center, a group that supports gun-control measures, estimated that each appeal cost $3,700.
Felons whom the ATF rejected traditionally had appealed to the federal courts. So Bean filed a lawsuit in the Eastern Texas U.S. District Court.
That court and then the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Bean.
The pro-gun-rights Bush administration argued the case against Bean, even though the Justice Department believes there is a constitutional right to gun ownership.
Delivering the opinion for the Supreme Court on Tuesday, Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed with the appeals court, saying it had no right to restore Bean's gun privileges. The ATF's inaction was not the same as a denial, the court held.
Other federal courts outside Texas had agreed with the government that the ATF, not the courts, must make decisions about gun rights.