A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that a man who committed a nonviolent crime cannot be legally prevented from owning a firearm — a potential setback to gun regulations spurred by a Supreme Court ruling last year that vastly expanded the right to bear arms.
In an 11-to-4 ruling, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned decisions by lower courts that had prevented Bryan Range, who had sued the state after being blocked from buying a shotgun for hunting and self-protection over a conviction for lying on a benefits application in the 1990s.
In a majority opinion, Judge Thomas M. Hardiman repeatedly cited the Supreme Court ruling last June, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, in which the majority established a new standard that dictated that gun laws conform to “historical traditions” dating to the 18th and 19th centuries.
“In sum, we reject the government’s contention that only ‘law-abiding, responsible citizens’ are counted among ‘the people’ protected by the Second Amendment,” wrote Judge Hardiman, a George W. Bush appointee who was on former President Donald J. Trump’s short list to serve on the Supreme Court after the death of Antonin Scalia in 2016.
It is unclear whether the ruling applies to similar cases: Mr. Range’s lawyer, Michael P. Gottlieb, said he brought the case for the “benefit of my client only” and believes it will make its way to the Supreme Court if the Justice Department appeals.
A spokeswoman for the department did not immediately return a request for comment.
Three judges, concurring with the majority, wrote that the decision “does not spell doom” for a section of federal law that strips gun ownership from anyone “convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.”
Judge Hardiman wrote that his opinion was “narrow.” But in a sharply worded dissent, Judge Patty Shwartz, an Obama appointee, said that the majority opinion would set a broad and dangerous precedent.
“While my colleagues state that their opinion is narrow, the analytical framework they have applied to reach their conclusion renders most, if not all, felon bans unconstitutional,” she wrote.
Judge Hardiman argued that punishing Mr. Range by revoking his gun rights for an offense that did not involve violence gave lawmakers too much power “to manipulate the Second Amendment” by labeling as a criminal someone, like Mr. Range, who has led an otherwise law-abiding life.
Federal laws bar people convicted of state or federal crimes that are punishable by more than a year in prison from buying weapons. In some states, including Pennsylvania, the federal ban takes effect after conviction on a misdemeanor that has a potential sentence of at least a year.
The decision, which was closely watched by national groups on both sides of the firearms debate, is the latest in a succession of federal court rulings that roll back existing gun regulations.
But most of those cases have been heard in the lower courts and only one other, over a decision that restored gun ownership rights to a man who was under a restraining order in a domestic violence, reached a federal appeals court, in New Orleans.
Charlie Savage contributed reporting.
Glenn Thrush covers the Department of Justice. He joined The Times in 2017 after working for Politico, Newsday, Bloomberg News, the New York Daily News, the Birmingham Post-Herald and City Limits. @GlennThrush
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