Federal judges grant gun rights to Midstaters with prior convictions

In 1990, Julio Suarez of Adams County was stopped on suspicion of DUI and caught with an unlicensed handgun in his car.

In 1996, Daniel Binderup of Lancaster County was convicted of having consensual sex with a 17-year-old girl. He was 41 at the time.

Neither man did jail time.

Both lost their rights to possess firearms.

But in 2009, after years of no wrongdoing and clean records, Pennsylvania courts reinstated gun rights to both men.

“They are, in fact, harmless,” their attorney Alan Gura said Friday. “There’s no reason why they should be disarmed, so disarming them violates their Second Amendment rights.”

But disarm them the federal government did.

It cited a federal law that basically says if you’re convicted of a crime that is potentially punishable by a year in jail, then you forfeit your firearm rights. The Justice Department fought, against the rulings of Pennsylvania judges, to keep guns away from Suarez and Binderup.

The Midstate pair fought back.

In a ruling released Wednesday, judges in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the Midstaters, saying their Second Amendment rights had, in fact, been violated.

“It reflects the commonsense values of this country,” Gura said. “Dangerous people should be disarmed, non-dangerous people who pose zero threat to society have a right to keep guns for self-defense and for defense of their families.”

Of course, how does one decide who’s dangerous and likely to commit a violent crime and who isn’t? The ruling isn’t absolute, analysts say. It affirms that sometimes those convicted, even of lesser crimes, shouldn’t have their gun rights restored. There’s wiggle room on both sides of the argument.

“Where do you draw the line and who draws the line?” asked Michael Dimino, a law professor at Widener University’s Commonwealth campus.

Dimino said the Supreme Court has declined to hear similar cases in the past. He thinks the high court will have to speak on it sooner or later, but it is currently in no position to be deciding tough, polarizing issues.

“Right now, we have a 4-4 Supreme Court awaiting the appointment of another justice,” Dimino noted. “When that other justice takes his seat, Second Amendment jurisprudence could change dramatically.”

Translation: if a liberal judge is added to the court, it could support the Justice Department’s assertion that no one with those specified prior convictions should ever own a firearm. If a conservative judge is appointed, the court likely affirms Wednesday’s ruling that there are certain cases in which gun rights should be restored.

Gura suspects he’s going to have to argue before the Supreme Court, though he hopes the feds will back off and let the Third Circuit ruling stand. He attributes the Justice Department’s dogged determination on the issue to two factors. One, he says, the Justice Department doesn’t like to lose so it will fight on beyond reason. Secondly, he says, the president’s men don’t like firearms.

“This administration (Obama) does not like gun rights and they have been opportunistic in the past to use every possible hook that they might use in order to disarm somebody,” Gura said. “If you don’t value the right to have a gun, if you see it as only something potentially harmful, then every restriction looks reasonable.”

Binderup and Suarez can now legally purchase firearms.

District attorneys we polled, and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, were still digesting the ruling Friday and had no comment.

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