A Philadelphia federal appeals court has ruled that a Pennsylvania man convicted of a nonviolent crime cannot be stripped of his 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.
Bryan Range was convicted in 1995 of one count of making a false statement to obtain food stamps amid a dire financial situation. He completed a three-year probation, made $2,500 in restitution, and has committed no crimes aside from minor traffic offenses and fishing without a license since then.
After he pleaded guilty in 1995, it was classified as a misdemeanor punishable by up to five years in jail - a conviction which technically made him ineligible to possess a firearm under federal law, which states that it is "unlawful for any person … who has been convicted in any court, of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" to own guns or ammunition.
In 2021, a federal judge ruled against Range's challenge. While his case was pending appeal, the US Supreme Court decided a landmark Second Amendment case which settled on a two-step test for the constitutionality of restrictions on firearms.
The two-step process, set forth by Supreme Court Justice Thomas Clarence, first requires the court to determine whether the Second Amendment’s “plain text” covers an individual’s conduct. If so, then that conduct is presumptively protected, and the government must prove that its law is “consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.” -Epoch Times
In applying the test to Range's case, a majority of the judges agreed in an 11-4 ruling (pdf) delivered on June 6th that despite his criminal record, he remains one of "the people" protected by the 2nd Amendment, and therefore the burden fell on the US government to prove that disarming Range would conform to "historical tradition" dating to the nation's founding.
"Yet the Government’s attempts to analogize those early laws to Range’s situation fall short," wrote Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman in the majority opinion.
The fact that people during the Early Republic era sometimes got executed for committing nonviolent crimes, according to Hardiman, doesn’t mean that the state, then or now, could constitutionally strip a felon of his Second Amendment rights if he was not executed, because “the greater does not necessarily include the lesser.”
“Because the Government has not shown that our Republic has a longstanding history and tradition of depriving people like Range of their firearms, [the federal law] cannot constitutionally strip him of his Second Amendment rights,” Hardiman wrote.
The judges did note that the June 6 decision is limited to Range’s individual circumstances: he was banned from owning guns because the nonviolent crime he committed decades ago carried a relatively lengthy maximum prison sentence. -Epoch Times
"Our decision today is a narrow one," read the majority opinion. "Bryan Range challenged the constitutionality of [the federal law] only as applied to him given his violation of [the Pennsylvania law]."
As the Epoch Times notes further;
Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote a concurring opinion, saying that even though the government failed to carry its burden in this case, the federal felon-in-possession ban still stands lawful.
“This is so because it fits within our Nation’s history and tradition of disarming those persons who legislatures believed would, if armed, pose a threat to the orderly functioning of society. That Range does not conceivably pose such a threat says nothing about those who do,” Ambro wrote. “And I join the majority opinion with the understanding that it speaks only to his situation, and not to those of murderers, thieves, sex offenders, domestic abusers, and the like.”
Ambro was joined by Judges Joseph Greenaway and Tamika Montgomery-Reeves, who were appointed by Barack Obama and Joe Biden, respectively.
In one of the three dissenting opinions, Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz pointed to now-unconstitutional firearm bans on groups such as Native Americans, African Americans, Catholics, Quakers, and Loyalists. She argued that these restrictions, no matter how repugnant and unlawful they are today, serve as an analogy good enough to justify disarming people such as Range.
“The founders [of the United States] categorically disarmed the members of these groups because the founders viewed them as disloyal to the sovereign. The felon designation similarly serves as a proxy for disloyalty and disrespect for the sovereign and its laws,” the Obama appointee wrote. “Such categorization is especially applicable here, where Range’s felony involved stealing from the government, a crime that directly undermines the sovereign.”
Shwartz also warned that even though her colleagues have clarified that their opinion is “narrow,” the analytical framework they have applied to reach the conclusion could render most, if not all, felon firearm bans unconstitutional.
“The ruling is not cabined in any way and, in fact, rejects all historical support for disarming any felon,” she wroted. “As a result, the Majority’s analytical framework leads to only one conclusion: there will be no, or virtually no, felony or felony-equivalent crime that will bar an individual from possessing a firearm.
“This is a broad ruling and, to me, is contrary to both the sentiments of the Supreme Court and our history.”