WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Tuesday shut the door on felons going straight to court to get their gun rights restored, leaving no options for people who claim a conviction shouldn't stop them from being a gun owner.
The justices ruled unanimously that felons must go through a federal agency. That agency, however, has been banned by Congress since 1992 from processing requests.
Federal law prohibits felons from carrying guns, but they can ask the government for an exception.
In this case, a former Texas gun dealer argued that the process gives him no option. He sued and a lower court gave Thomas Lamar Bean his firearms license back. Tuesday's high court decision took it away again.
Bean, a well-known businessman, was convicted of violating Mexican law after officers found 200 rounds of bullets in his car during a dinner trip across the border four years ago. He said he'd told his assistants to remove the bullets.
When Bean tried to get his gun rights -- and livelihood -- back, he was supported by two police chiefs, a sheriff, a judge, a prosecutor, and a Baptist preacher.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the justices, said that Bean could only go to court if his request was denied by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The bureau didn't act on his application.
Thomas said the ATF, not a judge, was best prepared to look into whether an applicant could be a danger to public safety.
The justices rejected Bean's argument that the government's inability to act amounted to a denial.
The ruling had been expected. Nelson Lund, a law professor at George Mason University, said an appeals court decision that allowed Bean to bypass the ATF "looked like an effort by the court to solve an injustice through some creative legal innovation."
"If you think this is a problem, the obvious way to solve it is through Congress. Congress created this situation and they can fix it, which they may do when the Republicans have control of both houses and the presidency," Lund said.
The Bush administration had argued against Bean, despite the Justice Department's stance that the Constitution guarantees a right to gun ownership.
The National Rifle Association did not file arguments in the case, but other gun rights supporters backed Bean. Mathew Nosanchuk, litigation director for the pro-gun control Violence Policy Center, predicted the court's decision will end an effort to give felons gun rights.
"I don't think any member of Congress wants to be standing up in favor of restoring gun privileges to convicted felons. That goes way too far, even for NRA allies," he said.
The case is United States v. Bean, 01-704.