U.S. Eighth Circuit - The FindLaw 8th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Giving Guns to Felons Isn't Reason to Deny License, 8th Rules

When the Harris News Agency applied for a federal license to sell guns, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives denied their application on the grounds that the company's officers had willfully allowed a felon to possess firearms by letting him work as a gunsmith.

But, simply allowing a felon to work with guns isn't reason enough to deny the license, the Eighth Circuit ruled on Tuesday.

From Jim's Hobbies to Harris News

Of course, things are a little more complicated than that. Harris News Agency was really a shell company for Jim's Hobbies, a family company in Nebraska. Jim's Hobbies had lost its license to sell firearms after allowing a felon to possess firearms. That felon was Brian Harris, a gunsmith at the store, a convicted felon, and the owners' son.

Brian Harris had been convicted of a felony in 1992. Brian also worked from the hobby store run by his parents, James and Lois. That worked involved gunsmithing, which the Eight Circuit notes, "naturally involved handling guns." Federal law prohibits felons from possessing firearms, while federal gun licensing laws deny gun dealership licenses to anyone who has "willfully violated" federal gun laws.

In 2011, the ATF discovered that Brian was working with guns. After an investigation, James Harris, the father, pleaded guilty to lying to ATF agents about Brian's work. As part of his plea deal, he gave up his firearms license. James and his wife then created Harris News Agency to apply for a gun dealership license, so that they could keep operating Jim's Hobbies.

The ATF denied the application, on the basis that Harris News' only officers and owners, James and Lois, had willfully violated federal gun law.

What Counts as Willful?

Sounds like an open and shut case to us. A family violates gun laws and attempts to evade the consequences by creating a shell corporation to get around licensing laws. Pretty straight forward.

But not to the Eighth Circuit, which found that having a felon work with guns wasn't a willful violation of gun laws. According to the ATF, the Harrises had violated the felon with a firearm law by "allowing" their son to work with them -- and with guns. But "allowing" is not the same as willfully violating, according to the court. It was more akin to "negative acquiescence" than "aiding and abetting."

According to the court, "nothing in the record suggests Lois or James Jr. gave Brian guns, told customers to give him guns, directed him to work with guns, or did anything else to further his possession of guns."

It's a conclusion that seems somewhat hard to believe. Brian, after all, worked as a gunsmith for the store. It seems, however, that the ATF's record was thin, with only the indication, according to the Eighth, that Brian had actually been instructed to work with guns. To deny Harris News' application, the Feds would need a bit more of -- ahem -- a smoking gun.

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