WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to consider stopping federal judges from restoring gun rights to convicted felons.
The intervention comes at the request of the Bush administration, angry that a Texas man convicted of a felony in Mexico convinced a court that he should be able to own a gun.
Felons are barred from carrying guns after their release from prison, but they can ask the government for an exception.
Those requests have been stalled, however, for nearly a decade because Congress ordered the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to stop spending money to process them.
In the gun-rights case, the logjam at the ATF has prompted lawsuits, like the case won by a former gun dealer. The Supreme Court will consider whether to reverse Thomas Lamar Bean's victory.
Bean, a well-known businessman, was arrested by Mexican authorities who found a box of ammunition in his sport utility vehicle. The box had been left there by one of his co-workers, court records show, and Bean was convicted after being ordered to sign a confession in Spanish, which he didn't know.
In 2000 when he petitioned to get his gun rights — and livelihood — back, the 60-year-old father of two adult children was supported by two police chiefs, a sheriff, a judge, a prosecutor, and a Baptist preacher.
Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson said the case was not about Bean, but other felons who will now expect courts to restore their gun privileges.
"There is a significant risk that persons who pose a real danger to public safety might be rearmed," Olson wrote in court filings.
Each year since 1992, Congress has included in the ATF's budget a ban on using money for background checks, which cost an estimated $3,700 each.
Still on the books is the law allowing people to petition for gun rights, and permitting them to appeal to federal court if they are dissatisfied with the outcome.
Olson said the ATF, not judges, have the resources to handle requests. He said Texas could produce many such cases. In 1999, 80,000 people were convicted in Texas of felonies, he said.
Bean's lawyer told the Supreme Court that Olson's argument "paints an eye-catching image of federal district judges dispensing gun permits like candy to tens of thousands of marauding Texas felons."
Larry C. Hunter wrote in filings that the "hyperbolic claim is provably false." Judges can require witnesses and evidence, he said, and "the in-person adversarial format of a court hearing is ideally suited to credibility determinations."
Since Bean's conviction, Mexico has reduced the charges for importing ammunition to a misdemeanor, Hunter said. The federal judge who ruled in his favor on the gun privileges also found that the Mexican conviction did not classify him as a U.S. felon.
A Texas state court has determined that he is not considered a felon.
Olson argued that someone who is denied gun privileges by the federal government can file suit, but that they cannot sue over inaction. Similar cases have had opposite outcomes in other courts, he said.
Bean served about five months of a five-year prison sentence.
The night he was arrested, he had attended a gun show in Laredo, Texas, and was crossing the border to have dinner in Mexico.
A panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said he was imprisoned for a "simple oversight."
The case is United States v. Bean, 01-704.