Reevaluating Felon-in-Possession Laws After Bruen and the War on Drugs

65 Pages Posted: 26 Feb 2024

Date Written: February 26, 2024

Abstract

The legal landscape surrounding firearm possession is evolving rapidly. In 2022, the Supreme Court accelerated its expansion of the individual right to bear arms under the Second Amendment in New York Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen. Since Bruen, courts around the country have struck down nearly all types of firearm regulations, with one notable exception: felon-in-possession laws. This paper examines the implications of a legal landscape where those who have prior felony convictions, and especially prior drug convictions, are punished harshly for the same behavior, possession of a firearm, that is constitutionally protected for everyone else.

I argue that as the Second Amendment expands to protect more and more firearm possession, a dichotomy has arisen in which those who live in the communities most heavily targeted by the war on drugs of the 1980s and 1990s are increasingly becoming virtually the only Americans for whom firearm possession is illegal. I examine the history and development of felon-in-possession statutes to show that they were not enacted with a clear purpose, and are not narrowly tailored to criminalize the most dangerous behavior. Further, I show how existing federal enforcement priorities and the structure of the United States Sentencing Guidelines compound the harms of the war on drugs by punishing individuals with prior drug offenses most harshly, even when there is limited evidence to suggest that they pose the greatest danger from firearm possession.

The Supreme Court is currently considering how to assess the question of danger in relation to the Second Amendment in United States v. Rahimi. I argue that as Second Amendment jurisprudence evolves, prosecutors and legislators must be cognizant of the lasting effects of the war on drugs, and question the assumption that a prior felony conviction is an accurate proxy for dangerousness.

Keywords: criminal law, criminal justice reform, race and the law, second amendment, firearms, felon-in-possession

Suggested Citation

Abelson, Laura, Reevaluating Felon-in-Possession Laws After Bruen and the War on Drugs (February 26, 2024). 15 UC Irvine L. Rev. (forthcoming), U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4738997

Laura Abelson (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

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