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Home | News

March 27, 2000

NRA program allows convicts to get their guns back

By Kristen Rand
Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services

Sherman Dale Williams pleaded guilty to two counts of illegally selling two full-auto machine guns to undercover agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Under federal law Williams, now a felon convicted of a gun crime, should never have been able to ever again possess a gun. But he can — thanks to the National Rifle Association.

Williams is one of the thousands of felons who have benefited from a little-known program that the NRA has taken under its protective wing: the “relief from disability” program. Under the program, convicted felons could apply for “relief” from the “disability” of not being able to buy or possess a gun. The program has allowed thousands of convicted, often violent, felons to obtain guns — including terrorists, murderers, and rapists.

The program was established in 1965 as a special congressional favor to firearms manufacturer Winchester, then a division of Olin Mathieson Corp., which had been convicted in a felony kickback scheme. The program allowed Olin to shed its “felon” status and continue to manufacture firearms. Although created to benefit one corporation, the program quickly became a convicted felons' second-chance club. Thousands of felons took advantage of the program and had their gun privileges restored. In the 10-year period from1982 until 1992, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms processed more than 22,000 applications at a cost of more than $21 million — with relief being granted in approximately one-third of the cases.

The crimes committed by successful “relief” candidates were not limited to nonviolent, “white-collar” crimes like those committed by Olin. Through the Freedom of Information Act, the Violence Policy Center obtained 100 randomly selected files of felons granted “relief.” Among those 100 cases were: five convictions for felony sexual assault; 11 burglary convictions; 13 convictions for distribution of narcotics; and, four homicide convictions. In fact, of the 100 sample cases, one third involved either violent crimes (16 percent) or drug-related crimes (17 percent).

Among those granted relief was Jerome Sanford Brower, part of an international terrorist plot masterminded by former CIA agents Edwin Wilson and Francis Terpil to ship explosives to Libya. Brower pleaded guilty in federal court in 1981. Fellow “relief” program graduate Jon Wayne Young pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and aggravated robbery in Minnesota in 1976. Young possessed a history of sex-related offenses dating back to the age of 13. At Young's sentencing the judge stated: “You placed another person's life in jeopardy, in danger, and that person could have been killed by you. ... (Y)ou don't have enough control of your own actions to prevent that sort of thing.”

Yet prior to 1986 gun felons like Sherman Dale Williams were excluded from the program. That changed that year with passage of the NRA's flagship bill, the Firearm Owners' Protection Act, which expanded the program to include felons convicted of gun crimes. And so Williams was able to get “relief” in 1989.

In 1992, after the Violence Policy Center publicized details regarding its operations, the program was defunded by Congress. Since then, the NRA has repeatedly tried to revive the guns-for-felons programdespite the fact that many of the program's graduates went on to commit other crimes. For example, Michael Paul Dahnert of Wisconsin was convicted in 1977 of burglary. He got “relief” in 1986. Two months after “relief” was granted, he was rearrested for first-degree sexual assault and four counts of second-degree sexual assault, for which he was sentenced to five years in prison.

And while the federal relief program remains defunded, once again, thanks to the NRA, felons still have a means to get their guns back. Under the Firearm Owners' Protection Act, felons denied relief can petition the federal courts to get their gun privileges back. Some members of Congress have worked to stop this wave of petitions flooding the federal courts, but the NRA has successfully blocked these efforts so that courts are now restoring the gun privileges of felons such as Thomas Lamar Bean, a Texas gun show dealer who was convicted of illegally transporting ammunition into Mexico in 1998.

The NRA's willingness to not only defend but to expand the “relief from disability” program to actually include gun criminals is only the latest example of the organization's Second Amendment extremism. While the NRA pays lip service to the idea of keeping guns out of criminals' hands, it toils behind the scenes to rearm gun criminals. That's “enforcement” NRA style.

Kristen Rand is director of federal policy at the Violence Policy Center, 1140 19th Street NW, Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20036.
This essay is available to Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service subscribers. Knight Ridder/Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of Knight Ridder/Tribune or its editors.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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