Ron Kelly, a 20-year Army veteran, recently tried to buy a .22-caliber rifle at the Wal-Mart in Tomball, Texas. He was turned away because he failed the FBI background check. He appealed the rejection, and last month he got a Justice Department letter explaining that he was legally disqualified from owning guns, after handling them in defense of his country for two decades, because of a 42-year-old marijuana conviction. As a high school student in Durham, North Carolina, he had been caught with a small amount of pot and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession, receiving a sentence of probation because he was a first-time offender. The probation lasted a year, but according to the Justice Department the ensuing loss of Kelly’s Second Amendment rights lasts a lifetime. “I am ashamed of the way my government has treated me,” Kelly told The Houston Chronicle. “The government may have the greatest of intentions with the [law], but they messed it up.”
Kelly’s disqualification may in fact be unjustified under current law, which bars gun sales to people convicted of felonies but not misdemeanors (except for misdemeanors involving domestic violence). Unless the feds are treating what North Carolina called a misdemeanor as a felony for some reason, Kelly’s pot conviction should not be covered by that provision. The only other disqualifier that seems possibly relevant is the one for anybody who is “an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance,” but more than a 1971 conviction for possession should be required to demonstrate that Kelly falls into that category.