A potentially earth-shaking Supreme Court ruling went largely unnoticed this month.
Back in 1998, Thomas Bean, a Texas resident and licensed firearm dealer, traveled across the border into Mexico for dinner. Stopping Bean's car for a search when he tried to re-cross the border, Mexican authorities found 200 rounds of ammunition -- a modest enough quantity for a firearms dealer (who will often sell 500 rounds to a single customer) to have lying about his car unnoticed ... which Bean explains is just what happened.
But possession of cartridges is a felony in Mexico -- a typical slave state on the European model, where only the government police are allowed to pack heat.
Bean was convicted.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms holds Bean is now a convicted felon, who should not be allowed to possess firearms and ammunition here in the states nor continue his livelihood as a gun shop owner.
Bean and his attorneys argue the Mexican conviction doesn't make him a felon in the United States, since he violated no U.S. law. They applied to the BATF to have his constitutional rights restored.
But Congress in each year since 1992 has included in the BATF's budget a ban on using tax money to do background checks on felons, which cost an estimated $3,700 each. So the BATF told Bean he was out of luck.
He went to court. A lower court ordered the BATF to restore Bean's federal firearms license. But on Dec. 10 Justice Clarence Thomas -- supposedly one of the high court's most "conservative" justices -- issued a ruling which blocks victims such as Bean from going straight to court to have their rights "restored."
The BATF, not a judge, is in the best position to look into whether an applicant could be a danger to public safety, Justice Thomas held. It's up to Congress to let the BATF do the checks. If it won't, tough luck, the court ruled.
Mathew Nosanchuk, top lawyer for the pro-victim-disarmament Violence Policy Center, was left positively chortling by the decision. "I don't think any member of Congress wants to be standing up in favor of restoring gun privileges to convicted felons," he said.
The only part Mr. Nosanchuk got wrong was that "privilege" part. The Second Amendment does not say, "The privilege of some of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
Can the government ever deprive us of our rights? Yes. Convicted of a felony, we can be sent to prison, where many of our civil, political and constitutional rights are routinely infringed for the duration of our incarceration as explicity allowed in the 13th Amendment. Plain common sense.
But what about the day we're released from prison? Does the ex-convict have to apply to the governor or the BATF or the courts or anyone else to have "restored" his right to read the Bible or the Quran, or to enter and worship in a church or temple, as guaranteed under the First Amendment? No.
To have "restored" his right to speak out in public or pen a letter-to-the-editor, rights also guaranteed by the First Amendment? No.
Everyone knows he regains the right to do these things the moment he walks back out that prison gate. The same holds true for rights guaranteed under the Sixth, Fourth, Fifth or Eight amendments.
So what's this business about his having to have some authority "restore" his right to keep and bear arms, as guaranteed by the Second Amendment?
Well, presumably that's just a "gray area" not covered by any part of the Constitution -- you know, like the right to vote. Right?
Just this once, will someone please get out the document and read it?
Americans may not be deprived of the right to vote simply because they've been in prison. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution -- an integral part of the highest law of the land -- advises all public officeholders that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
Understand that "servitude" is the word used in granting the exception to the ban on slavery in the 13th Amendment, which allows the government to imprison convicts. Someone who's been in jail has been in "servitude," the Constitution tells us. Now, once again -- shall we read it together, class? -- what is it no one can do to any American based on his "previous condition of servitude"?
Ex-felons automatically recover their right to vote the minute they walk out of prison, the same way ex-slaves and their descendants had their right to vote guaranteed the moment the 13th Amendment was ratified. Hallelujah, twice over. If your local registrar of voters thinks otherwise, it's the duty of George Bush and Clarence Thomas to see to it they learn otherwise.
Bean -- and every other "ex-convict" and "ex-felon" in America who is no longer in prison -- has a right to keep and bear arms, right now. No government agency -- federal, state or local -- is allowed to "make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities" of such citizens -- including their "immunity" from any "infringement" of "the people's ... right ... to keep and bear arms" -- regardless of race, color, "or previous condition of servitude."
All that is required is a Supreme Court that is willing to read the Constitution.
Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.