The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a former U.S. Border patrol agent, Tony Henderson, who was convicted of a felony in 2006 and sought to sell his gun collection that included a personal firearm and some antique weapons.
A unanimous court ruled Monday that once a gun owner is convicted of a felony, his or her lawfully owned firearms can be transferred from government custody to a third party if a court is satisfied that the recipient would not give the felon control over the firearms.
The case pitted property rights advocates against those seeking tougher gun regulations.
After Henderson was convicted of distributing marijuana, as a condition of his release on bail, he turned over all his firearms. Once he pleaded guilty to the drug charge he was subject to a federal law that prevented him from repossessing his firearms.
Henderson sought to sell the guns to a friend, or transfer ownership to his wife. But the government denied the request.
A lower court ruled in favor of the government, reasoning that granting Henderson’s motion would amount to giving him “constructive possession” of the firearms.
A lawyer for Henderson said the lower court got the case wrong.
“It allows the government to use a statute that bars possession of firearms to dispense with formal forfeiture procedures and effectively strips citizens of their entire ownership interest in what are often significant household assets even when their convictions have nothing to do with those assets,” wrote lawyer John P. Elwood.
The Supreme Court vacated that decision and remanded the case back for further consideration.
In Monday’s opinion, the Court said that the law “prevents a felon not only from holding his firearms himself, but also from maintaining control over those guns in the hands of others.”
But Elena Kagan, writing for the 9-0 majority, said the government had gone too far, noting that in most circumstances a felon would not be able to transfer his firearms to another person, “no matter how independent of the felon’s influence.”
“What matters here is not whether a felon plays a role in deciding where his firearms should go next,” Kagan wrote. “What matters instead is whether the felon will have the ability to use or direct the use of his firearms after the transfer.”
Kagan said the guns could be turned over to a firearms dealer, or to a person “who expects to maintain custody of them, so long as the recipient will not allow the felon to exert any influence over their use.”
She said the Court could “seek proper assurances” from the third party “to promise to keep the guns away from the felon,” in order to avoid violating the law.