The Supreme Court on Monday unanimously ruled that a convicted felon may ask a court to transfer his guns to a third party, rather than relinquishing them to the government.
The decision in Henderson v. United States could have a significant impact, given how many Americans are convicted of felonies. If a person is convicted of a felony that is punishable by at least a year in prison, federal law bars that person from possessing a firearm. However, Monday's ruling affirms that the government cannot simply seize any firearms the convicted felon owned.
Writing for the court, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said in the opinion that a court may transfer a felon's weapons to a third party, as long as the court is satisfied that the recipient will not let the felon use the weapons or direct their use.
The case focused on Tony Henderson, a former U.S. border patrol agent who was busted for dealing small amounts of marijuana. He was sentenced to six months in jail and served his time. The former officer had turned his personal gun collection over to the court during his legal proceedings, and the government kept his weapons after his conviction because felons are barred from possessing firearms.
Since the firearms -- some of them family heirlooms -- had no connection to his crime, Henderson asked the government to transfer them to a third party who could then pay him for them. His request was denied.
The federal government argued that allowing such a transfer amounted to letting the felon possess the weapons and was therefore illegal. However, Kagan wrote that this interpretation would extend the law "far beyond its purpose."
"Congress enacted that ban to keep firearms away from felons like Henderson, for fear that they would use those guns irresponsibly," she wrote. "Yet on the Government's construction, [the law] would prevent Henderson from disposing of his firearms even in ways that guarantee he never uses them again, solely because he played a part in selecting their transferee. He could not, for example, place those guns in a secure trust for distribution to his children after his death. He could not sell them to someone halfway around the world. He could not even donate them to a law enforcement agency."
Henderson initially represented himself in court, but to take his case all the way to the Supreme Court, he accepted pro bono representation from a group of students and their professor at the University of Virginia Law School. Monday's unanimous ruling gives another victory to the law school clinic, which since 2006 has had an impressive number of cases make it to the Supreme Court level.