Is jail a miserable enough place that convicted felons won't want to go back there once they've served their sentence?
It was a fairly simple question, and I suspect the person asking it had been anticipating a clear, painfully obvious answer.
“Should convicted felons be able to own guns?”
He said it in a way that suggested it was one of those “Well, duhhh” questions, particularly after the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona, which heightened public awareness about the dangers of gun violence.
And I also felt like there was an obvious response, so I said it.
“Yes,” I nodded, “I not only think convicted felons and ex-offenders should be able to own guns, I think Congress should repeal the federal law that makes it a felony for them to do so.”
My friend stared at me in a kind of dazed, chin-to-the-floor way, like I had just said I wanted to set off an atomic bomb in my living room because it had been a dull night.
Then he simply walked away, shaking his head mournfully, as if to suggest that my response had been so bizarre and off the wall that I wasn’t worth the time and effort of a legitimate answer.
And I understood his reaction. It’s the one that says, You basically want to put guns in the hands of criminals so they can shoot and kill us more easily.
Well, no, actually, that’s not my position at all. Far from it.
What I don’t believe, and never have, is that guns in the hands of criminals can be banished due to federally-mandated gun control. Law abiding citizens who won’t rob me when I stop by the ATM at night now have to jump through multiple hoops to get their guns and register them, but criminals tend to bypass those regulations altogether. So gun control is mainly an effective system for ensuring that people who don’t commit crimes to begin with bow to our political leaders for their own good. It’s window dressing for politicians who want the general public to think they’re promoting law and order.
After the shooting in Tucson that killed six people and seriously injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Larry Pratt, national president of Gun Owners of America, wondered aloud what would have happened if someone in the crowd had been carrying a concealed weapon. Could that person have taken down the shooter before anyone else besides Giffords got injured? I have no clue, and considering how chaotic that scene must have been, some could reasonably wonder if several people in the crowd with guns could have made the entire situation even worse.
Or, considering that the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, was tackled by an unarmed citizen, it’s possible that one truly sharp shooter in the crowd could have saved lives. We’ll never know.
But back to convicted felons. If they’re felons, don’t we want federal and state laws to ban them from owning guns because, well, aren’t they likely to be the very people who would want to use them — for all the wrong reasons?
I say – probably not.
For one thing, convicted felons have served their time in prison. Upon completion of their sentence, they’re free and, presumably, have had enough of being locked in a cramped cell, yelled by at guards, eating awful food and having their freedom taken away. I’m not about to assume anyone who has done their time is ready to jump back into a life of criminal activity, although admittedly some will.
Here in Florida, being a convicted felon means you lose some of your civil rights — and not just the right to own guns and ammunition. You can’t serve in the military, vote, hold public office, serve on a jury, and get certain professional licenses. Florida is one of three states that permanently removes these rights from people with felony convictions.
Why this is so, I can’t figure out. If jail is all about rehabilitation, you’d think we’d want people to get out of prison with certain advantages that help them put their lives back together – rather than rely on an outdated “tough on crime” mentality that assumes if we brand felons as bad boys for life, that’s a tough deterrent to others who may be contemplating breaking the law. The Scarlet Letter didn’t work for adultery and I doubt it will with general criminal activity, either. More likely, I think, it just makes it harder for offenders to get back on their feet once they’re out of prison.
There’s a process for getting those rights restored, which involves submitting an application to the Office of Executive Clemency in Tallahassee. Felons convicted of non-violent crimes can get their rights restored if they submit an application, have a job and have paid their court-ordered restitution — although those rights only cover being able to vote, hold office, serve on a jury and apply for a professional license. It doesn’t include the right to own a gun, and felons still have to apply for that right on a case-by-case basis.
I’m not sure I understand why a felon convicted of a non-violent crime – say, drugs or forgery, for example – can’t own a gun. There’s no indication they would use it to commit a violent crime, and shouldn’t they be given a second chance to demonstrate they’ve changed their ways?
And how about felons who wereconvicted of violent crimes – aggravated assault or battery, for example? Shouldn’t they be prohibited from owning a gun?
Again, I say no. I’d rather have a felon convicted of a violent crime be able to buy a gun legally – and then register it with law enforcement, so we can easily track who they are – then be tempted to get a gun illegally, under the cover of the law.
Not every convicted felon will keep committing crimes. Some of them will get it – jail is a miserable place and they don’t want to go back. Now it’s time for them to focus on their family, find a steady job, and rebuild their lives. If they want a gun for self-protection, or to go hunting, or because they’re a collector, or because they think a shotgun looks nifty framed on their living room wall … they should have that right, just as the rest of us do.
Likewise for those convicted of violent crimes. Advocates of gun control are likely to view this as pure insanity, but I stand by it: an ex-convict can find his home being broken into by other criminals just like the rest of us. Why disarm that person entirely when law enforcement lacks the manpower to protect every home from danger?
Politics is based on the notion that the government can do lots of wonderful things, including protect us from every possible threat lurking in our neighborhoods. Along with Santa Claus, I gave up believing that one a long time ago. Today I recognize that violence is shocking, random, and unpredictable, and we can’t expect to find a police officer on every corner. Self-protection, as Larry Pratt might say, seems like a much wiser option.
The government should worry less about taking guns away from people — including convicted felons — than encouraging lots and lots of gun safety courses for anyone with a weapons permit, plus multiple training sessions at the shooting range so those who have concealed weapons know how to use them. I know the concept of a lot of expert marksmen armed with guns scares plenty of gun control advocates, but that’s only because they stereotype gun owners as angry people prone to violence. Most of the gun owners I know are gentle and easygoing, and tell some awfully funny jokes at parties.
I don’t buy those stereotypes, and I also don’t stereotype every convicted felon — even those who committed violent crimes when they were young and stupid — as being prone to continued violence, either.
Too bad our politicians don’t.
Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.