After serving two years for rather spectacular bribery, Cunningham wrote to the sentencing judge that he plans to move to a cabin in the Ozarks where he will be surrounded by few people, “but they do have a lot of black bears, cougars, and history of rabies.”
Alas, federal law prohibits felons from ever owning guns. Cunningham, a highly decorated Navy fighter pilot in the Vietnam war, wrote the judge that ”I flew aircraft that could disintegrate your building with a half-second burst and now can’t carry a .22-cal.”
The judge kindly wrote back that he lacks the authority to restore Cunningham’s gun rights. Only the ATF can do that, on a special waiver, The irony is that Republicans, in their loathing of the ATF, has for twenty years starved the agency of a proper budget, including money to investigate waiver applications.
The judge wasn’t altogether correct, though. Since 1980, Congress has allowed states to issue gun-rights reinstatements. As reported in The New York Times, it has become increasingly easy for felons, even some with violent records, to get their rights to own guns restored, sometimes with deadly results. The Times assembled one of its “Room for Debate” panels of eight experts to discuss the issue, and in typical Times fashion, they were unanimous in their thinking that felons shouldn’t ever have guns. At the times, there is never room for debate — on the Op-Ed page, in the Room for Debate features, even in the letters column — for anything but the anti-gun position.
The whole issue of who should or shouldn’t “be allowed” to have guns is a red herring in a country with 280 million privately owned guns, and no laws against one person privately selling a gun to another. If I want to sell you one of my guns, I may. There needn’t be a background check: that’s only at gun stores, and at gun shows in some states. You come to my house, I give you the gun, you give me cash, and off you go, perfectly legal. In theory, I’m not supposed to sell you one if I “have reason to believe” that you’re either a criminal or a lunatic. But who am I to judge those prison tats on your neck, those fingernail marks on your face, or your incoherent babbling? We could pass laws against private gun sales, of course, but the people we have to worry about wouldn’t obey them and everybody else would simply be irritated, inconvenienced, and insulted. And many of them wouldn’t obey the law, either. There’s a price to pay for passing laws that otherwise law-abiding people don’t obey. It instills a contempt for the law.
Would it be better if violent felons didn’t have guns? Maybe. It depends. Someone who has gone to prison used to be assumed to have “paid his debt to society,” and we should be careful about creating classes of citizens, some with full rights and others without. Some ex-cons go home to genuinely dangerous neighborhoods where a gun can be a smart thing to have.
The most important thing to remember is that there simply is a great deal we cannot control, and who gets a gun is one of them. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but so be it. We need to be more careful than we are about pumping ourselves up with righteous indignation and throwing laws around that people won’t obey and which will only deepen divisions among us.
And really, which do you want to do something about? Felons getting their gun rights back, or the 11 states that permanently strip all or some ex-felons of their right to vote? With a third of the nation’s black men under some sort of correctional control, felony disenfranchisement is a genuine disaster. Let’s do something about this, and for God’s sake let Randy Cunningham have a gun up there at his Ozark cabin.