Wyoming argues against feds in gun case
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) ” The state of Wyoming this week will ask a federal appeals court in Denver to uphold a state law that allows people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to regain their firearms rights.
Federal law specifies that those convicted of domestic violence can’t own guns. But it also says that states have authority to restore gun rights to people whose convictions are expunged or set aside.
In the Wyoming dispute, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has balked at accepting a state law that seeks to allow people convicted of domestic violence charges to regain their firearms rights through a state court proceeding.
The federal agency says the state law doesn’t truly expunge convictions because it specifies that they could be used to enhance the sentence in any subsequent case.
The ATF has told the state that if its 2004 law stayed on the books, it would no longer recognize more than 10,000 Wyoming concealed weapons permits as a substitute for federal background checks for firearms purchases. Such background checks are required under the federal Brady Act.
Wyoming sued the federal agency in federal court over the issue but lost.
In a decision last summer, U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson of Cheyenne ruled that the ATF has the authority to determine whether a state law is insufficient to remove a federal prohibition against a person carrying firearms.
The dispute has attracted attention from national groups on both sides of the gun control debate, including the Gun Owners Foundation siding with the state and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence siding with the ATF.
Levi Martin, senior assistant Wyoming attorney general, will argue the state’s case to the appeals court this week. He said Friday that the state is fighting the issue because the state law is directly affected by the ATF’s decision not to recognize its validity.
“Congress clearly provided the states with the authority to decide who in their states are trustworthy to possess firearms after certain convictions, and set up the system whereby certain offenders could receive their federal firearms rights back,” Martin said. “And the BATF for whatever reason has taken the position that they should be the deciders of who should have those firearms. I guess to a certain extent, it’s a state rights issue.”
John Powell, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cheyenne, said Friday that his office couldn’t comment on the pending case.
Federal lawyers last fall filed a response to the state’s appeal. They stated, “As the district court explained, the term ‘expungement’ is ordinarily understood to refer to the removal of all consequences of a conviction.”
The state’s expungement law is limited to misdemeanor convictions. It provides an opportunity for victims and prosecutors to comment on the application for restoration of gun rights.
Martin said he regards as ridiculous the federal agency’s argument that the state law is invalid because it doesn’t completely obliterate all records of the conviction.
“Their solution is for law enforcement not to have benefit of these records, and for the offender, if they were to offend again, not to have an enhanced penalty because of it,” Martin said of the federal government.
Twenty-three misdemeanor convictions were expunged in Wyoming through the first 10 months of last year, according to the state attorney general’s office. That compares to 27 in 2005 and 13 in 2006.
The state and the ATF have agreed that during the lawsuit, the state won’t issue any concealed weapons permits to people who have had misdemeanor convictions expunged. State officials have said that one concealed weapon permit had been issued to a person whose record was expunged before the lawsuit started.
Herbert Titus, lawyer for the Gun Owners Foundation in Virginia, said Wyoming’s case is important to the issue of state rights in the firearms arena.
“It’s critical, because there are so many different policies from state to state,” Titus said.
If Wyoming fails, Titus said, “it would mean that individual states that have particular needs, particular cultures, and use of firearms, would be bound basically by a BATF that’s oriented basically toward big cities, crowded urban areas, that’s different from so much of the West, and even the Midwest.”
Daniel Vice, senior attorney at the Brady Center in Washington, D.C., has said that his group believes that Wyoming and the gun lobby should not be trying to make it easier for domestic violence abusers to get firearms. An attempt to reach Vice for comment on Friday was unsuccessful.
“This case could be important nationwide, because it’s a real concern whether the federal government will be allowed to do its job and enforce the law to prevent dangerous people from getting guns,” Vice said last year. “And if Wyoming is able to skirt the law and enable dangerous people to get guns, then other states could do that too, at the behest of the gun lobby.”
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