March 27, 2000
NRA program allows convicts to get their
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
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,
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.
ABOUT THE WRITER
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
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