A 15-judge panel ruled Wednesday against the government in the combined cases of two men blocked from firearm possession after run-ins that resulted in convictions for non-serious crimes.
The ruling came in the cases of Binderup v. the U.S. Attorney General and Suarez v. the U.S. Attorney General.
Binderup pleaded guilty in 1996 in Pennsylvania to a misdemeanor charge of corrupting a minor to which he received three years’ probation and a $300 fine rather than the maximum of five years in prison– a colloquial slap on the wrist. Suraez pleaded guilty in 1990 to unlawfully carrying a handgun without a license in Maryland, which could have resulted in as much as three years in prison, but instead received a 180-day suspended sentence and $500 fine.
While neither spent a day in jail, both lost their firearms rights under federal law that treats those convicted of state misdemeanors that can be punished by two or more years in jail as prohibited firearms possessors.
In the decades since their convictions, both men have been crime free and Suraez has even obtained a “Secret” clearance in his job as a consultant to a government defense contractor. As both want to obtain legal guns to defend themselves and their families within their homes, they filed separate suits in 2009 in the U.S. Courts for the Eastern and Middle District of Pennsylvania, respectively, seeking to restore their Second Amendment rights, which were denied.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit this week disagreed 8-7 with the lower courts’ rulings and the government’s argument in part, while several judges dissented in part in a lengthy 174-page decision.
“Here, upon close examination of the Challengers’ apparently disqualifying convictions, we conclude that their offenses were not serious enough to strip them of their Second Amendment rights,” wrote the court. “For starters, though the Challengers’ crimes meet the generic definition of a felony and Congress’s definition of a felony for purposes of [federal law], the Pennsylvania and Maryland legislatures enacted them as misdemeanors. Misdemeanors are, and traditionally have been, considered less serious than felonies.”
The panel also cited the relatively minor sentences passed on the two men as reason to disregard their crimes as being serious enough to void their gun rights.
“Additionally, punishments are selected by judges who have firsthand knowledge of the facts and circumstances of the cases and who likely have the benefit of pre-sentence reports prepared by trained professionals. With not a single day of jail time, the punishments here reflect the sentencing judges’ assessment of how minor the violations were,” reads the decision of the en banc panel.
Gun rights advocates who helped back the cases welcomed the ruling.
“In an era where government officials want to disqualify as many people as possible from gun ownership, this ruling is monumental,” Second Amendment Foundation founder and Executive Vice President Alan Gottlieb told Guns.com in a statement. “This case will lead to the restoration of people’s civil and constitutional right to own a firearm that is long overdue.”
Alan Gura, who successfully argued Heller and McDonald before the Supreme Court in recent years, helmed the case.
“Today’s victory confirms that the government can’t simply disarm anyone it wishes,” said Gura. “At an absolute minimum, people convicted of non-serious crimes, who pose no threat to anyone, retain their fundamental rights. That this is even controversial is a matter of some concern.”