WASHINGTON -- As he sentenced habitual sex offender Jon Wayne Young for aggravated assault in 1976, a Minnesota judge said that it was "lucky" Young hadn't yet killed someone. But 13 years later, the federal government exempted Young from a law intended to keep felons straight -- the law that forbids them to own firearms.
Young is one of 2,300 criminals since 1985 who have quietly obtained federal permission to possess a gun. On Sept. 9, his case and several others like it were disclosed by a public interest group here that hopes to close what it considers a major loophole in federal gun controls.
Many of the criminals on the list were convicted of non-violent offenses -- tax evasion, forgery, even moonshining. But the total also includes an untold number of violent felons, most of whom only became eligible to own guns as a result of a little-noticed clause in a 1986 law backed by the National Rifle Association.
"Frankly, we think if more people were aware of it, these exemptions would be even more widespread," said Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center. Mr. Sugarmann has spent the last two years trying to learn how the government decides which felons can own guns.
After the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms refused to provide comprehensive information about the crimes committed by those who obtained exemptions, Mr. Sugarmann and his group traced the court records of 30 randomly selected felons who received permission to own firearms during 1989.
In addition to Young, they included Jerome Sanford Brower, convicted of conspiracy in 1981 after admitting that he had joined two former CIA officials in a plot to ship explosives to Libya. Also on the list was Robert Gunn, sentenced to three to 20 years in Michigan for delivery of narcotics.
BATF officials said that each felon who seeks relief from gun laws is subjected to a rigorous, weeks-long investigation, one that includes interviews with family, friends and police officials. Bureau spokesman Les Stanford said that the bureau attempts to determine whether the individual is "a good risk to re-enter society as a law-abiding person."
About 50 percent of those felons who complete the application process obtain permission to own a firearm, and about 2.5 percent of those are later convicted of another felony, Mr. Stanford said.
BATF disclosure chief Robert Pritchett said that the bureau has never attempted to determine how many violent felons have gained permission to own firearms and has not studied the nature of crimes they later commit. He said that the bureau denied Mr. Sugarmann's request for such an analysis because "it was just too difficult to do."
The federal law regarding felons and firearms has a peculiar history. Congress first set up the exemption process in 1965 as a special favor for Winchester. The firearms manufacturer was owned by a larger firm that had pleaded guilty to participating in a kickback scheme that would have disqualified Winchester from shipping firearms. In later years, many other prominent non-violent felons availed themselves of the new procedure, among them former vice-president Spiro Agnew.
But criminals who had used a firearm in the commission of a felony were not allowed to apply for exemptions until Congress undertook a broad rewrite of gun control laws in 1986.