The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday dealt a blow to gun control advocates by opening the door for some convicted felons to challenge a federal ban on them owning firearms.
The justices let stand a lower court's ruling that uniformly denying felons whose crimes were not serious the right to own guns violated the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment, which protects the right to "keep and bear arms."
The case involved two Pennsylvania men who were convicted of non-violent crimes who challenged the ban. The Trump administration had appealed last year's ruling by the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, calling it a threat to public safety.
The 3rd Circuit ruling does not set a nationwide legal precedent.
Liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor said they would have granted the appeal to hear the case.
The Pennsylvania men who challenged the ban, Julio Suarez of Gettysburg and Daniel Binderup of Manheim, both were convicted of non-violent misdemeanors, but the crimes carried maximum possible sentences of more than two years, falling within the definition of felony in the federal gun ban. Neither Suarez nor Binderup served jail time.
Binderup, who owns a plumbing business, pleaded guilty in 1998 of corrupting a minor after having a sexual affair with a 17-year-old female employee. Binderup was sentenced to three years of probation.
Suarez was convicted in Maryland in 1990 of carrying a gun without a permit. Suarez was given a suspended jail sentence and a year of probation.
Federal law generally prohibits firearm possession by individuals convicted of a crime punishable by a year or more in jail, the traditional definition of a felony. However, the law does not apply to offenses labeled as misdemeanors under state law that carry jail time of two years or less.
In 2013 and 2014, the men separately sued to escape the felon gun-possession prohibition. Emphasizing their non-violent offenses and light sentences, they argued the law violates their right to keep and bear arms under the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment.
The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in an 8-7 decision, held that people may challenge the ban depending on their particular criminal conviction, and found that it was unconstitutional as applied to the two men.
Trump has strongly embraced the National Rifle Association but his administration in this case was on the same side as gun rights advocates including the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The administration said in court papers the appeals court ruling would force judges to make case-by-case assessments of the risks possession by convicted felons, a job for which they are ill-suited. The administration added that too many felons whose gun ownership rights were restored for various reasons have gone on to commit violent crimes.
The Brady Center noted that the prohibition has been on the books in its current form since 1968, when Congress determined that the acquisition of firearms by people convicted of serious crimes posed a danger to public safety and to public figures.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)