« SCOTUS health care litigation, federalism, freedom, and constitutional limits of federal criminal justice | Main | Noticing and noting racial skew of recent Texas death sentencing in Harris County »

November 14, 2011

Might restoration of felon gun rights actually reduce recidivism?

As first blogged here, today's New York Times has a lengthy front-page article on state restoration of gun rights to former felons.  The piece is (misleadingly?) headlined "Felons Finding It Easy to Get Gun Rights Reinstated," and the suggestion throughout the article is that the public should be very concerned and quite fearful that some states now make it too easy for some felons to get their gun rights restored after having completed their sentence.  But, because recidivism rates for many offenders are often very high, some of the statistics appearing in the Times piece led me to wonder whether resoration of felon gun rights might actually reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.

The Times article rightly noted that sound data on these matters are had to assemble and assess, but the Times was able to run some notable numbers for Washington state.  Here is some of what the Times found and reported:

That [crime] question — whether the restorations pose a risk to public safety — has received little study, in part because data can be hard to come by.

The Times analyzed data from Washington State....  Since 1995, more than 3,300 felons and people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors have regained their gun rights in the state — 430 in 2010 alone — according to the analysis of data provided by the state police and the court system.  Of that number, more than 400 — about 13 percent — have subsequently committed new crimes, the analysis found.  More than 200 committed felonies, including murder, assault in the first and second degree, child rape and drive-by shooting....

The Times’s analysis found that among the more than 400 people who committed crimes after winning back their gun rights under the new law, more than 70 committed Class A or B felonies.  Over all, more than 80 were convicted of some sort of assault and more than 100 of drug offenses.

So the Times here reports a 13% recidvism rate for Washington state offenders with restored gun rights, but apparenently the recidivism rate is this high only due to counting of minor (i.e., misdemeanor) crimes.  As I understand these numbers, the Times found that only about 200 of the 3,300 prior offenders with restored gun rights since 1995 went on to commit a felony — roughly a 6% felony recidivism rate — and only 70 went on to commit Class A of B felonies — roughly a 2% serious felony recidivism rate.  That strikes me as an impressively low felony and serious felony recidivism rate for these offenders, especially given that states often report that half or more persons with a felony record end up committing a future offense.

Seeking general recidivism data for comparison purposes, I found this April 2008 report from the Washington State Sentencing Guidelines Commission, titled "Recidivism of Adult Felons, 2007," which reports that in Washington state the "overall rate of recidivism for men was 65.9% compared to 53.6% among women."  (I think it is fair to assume that the majority of felons seeking restoration of gun rights are men.)  Based on this data, is it fair to suggest that offenders with restored gun rights in Washington state are roughly than five times less likely to recidivate that other offenders?  (I also found this January 2011 report from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy which reports that "recidivism rates have declined" in Washington in the period from 1990 to 2006 and that "the largest reductions have been for higher risk offenders.")

This comparative data would seem to at least support a plausible working hypothesis that restoring gun rights to felons might actually reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.  Of course, there is a huge apples/oranges problem in trying to compare these recidivism rates.  I certainly hope and expect that Washington aspires to restore gun rights to former felons who appear to pose the least risk to public safety, and thus we should hope and expect recidivism rates to be generally lower for these folks than for others with a felony record.  Still, given that recidivism rates are appear to be so much lower for those who get their gun rights restored, there is a reasonable basis for at least speculating that the process and grant of restoration of rights works to provide additional encouragement for these former felons to stay crime-free in the future.

Some related Second Amendment and gun policy posts:

November 14, 2011 at 01:47 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Might restoration of felon gun rights actually reduce recidivism?:


You are jumping to conclusions that it was the restoration of gun rights that had the effect. Let's ask first what were the crimes committed by those who subsequently asked to have their gun rights back - were they as serious and/or are they representative of the larger group that had 66% recidivism? Second, is there something specific about the group asking to have their rights restored that stands out as the reason for their lower recidivism rate? Do they all have a job and thus income ot buy a gun, ammunition, etc. Is there something else about the group that explains both why they are asking to have their gun rights and explains their lower recidivism? Third, what is the plausible theory that getting your gun rights back keeps you out trouble?

Posted by: Paul | Nov 14, 2011 2:42:49 PM

Question for Professor Berman: I assume that States can ONLY restore gun rights for felons who have committed State offenses. Can a State restore gun rights for a felon who has a Federal felony conviction? I would think not, but I could be wrong.

Posted by: mike | Nov 14, 2011 2:53:22 PM

personaly i think the whole thing is a wash. IF it's a RIGHT then you have it! you can limit it while under a COURT ordered punishement. AFTER that NOTHING! otheriwse it's NOT A RIGHT!

Posted by: rodsmith | Nov 14, 2011 3:34:50 PM

When was 18 U.S.C. Sec. 922(g)(1) repealed? State firearms rights restoration does not provide a defense to federal felon-in-possession charges. Or has the Obama administration chosen to allocate its enforcement resources elsewhere?

A. Bentley

Posted by: Allen Bentley | Nov 14, 2011 4:18:56 PM

Rodsmith, traditionally, felons were deprived of certain rights, including voting and gun rights, and could have them deprived after they served their punishment behind bars. "Rights" still are rights if they have certain conditions. Gun and voting rights in particular traditionally had certain conditions.

Some argue that voting rights encourages an ex-convict to have a reason to be part of society and reduces crime. Gun rights perhaps might as well, particularly as a type of carrot to good conduct -- don't get in trouble, and we will give you your gun rights back. The good conduct will bring too returns.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 14, 2011 4:31:30 PM

Thank you Mr. Bentley. I thought the same thing, although the Times piece seems to imply otherwise.

As to correlation/causation, I think the most likely explanation is that those ex-cons who have the organization and motivation to go through the rights-restoration process are a self-selecting group of "high achievers." Further, there is presumably at least some screening process (?), so the least suitable applicants (and conversely, those most likely to recidivate) may be screened out as well. I think you'd find the same is true of those seeking/receiving voting rights, etc.

Posted by: Anon | Nov 14, 2011 4:51:21 PM

being from a rural area, I'm pretty sure that the firearm prohibition for felony convictions does help deter crime among people aware of it. For many people, a lifetime ban on having guns is way worse punishment than a potential prison sentence.

Posted by: virginia | Nov 14, 2011 5:41:17 PM

mike, Mr. Bentley and Anon: federal law expressly provides in 18 USC 921(a)(20)(B) that a state restoration of rights means one no longer is subject to the felon-in-possession prohibitions of 922(g). So that's what the NYT is talking about.

And Paul, I am just raising the possibility that restoration or right might be a cause of reduced recidivism, though I suspect the numbers I have in the main post reflect correlation more than causation. Nevertheless, Joe articulate the plausible theory here: once a former felon goes through the process of rights restoration, he/she may come to feel/know that he/she has even more to lose from a repeat offense and thus may be distinctly likely to try to avoid another tangle with the law.

In the end, I think proving causation here one way or another will be very hard --- and this is one reason that the NYT article seems pernicious for seeming to suggest that restoring gun rights might make former felons MORE likely to commit another crime.

Posted by: Doug B. | Nov 14, 2011 6:01:20 PM

One of the State's sentencing objectives is to control the offenders risk of committing another crime. Another is to reduce that risk to an acceptable level. Recidivism is a poor measure of success or failure in meeting these objectives because the decision to return an offender to confinement may be influenced by many other considerations.

Posted by: Tom McGee | Nov 14, 2011 6:14:39 PM

I personally hope they do give convicted felons their gun rights back. We're going to need them in the fight against this corrupt government.

There again, when it comes to the upcoming revolution, who needs a "right" to fight against tyranny with gun. You just do it!

Posted by: Book38 | Nov 14, 2011 7:03:38 PM

Part of the problem is the non-sequitur that a felony conviction in and of itself makes it more dangerous for someone to possess a firearm. Would anyone really care if Martha Stewart keeps a handgun in her house? Or the college student who grew marijuana for himself and his friends? Or the single mother who transported a few illegal aliens to pay a few bills?

Plus, it doesn't even makes sense as applied. Some crimes that may be a felony in one state may not be in another, so the federal prohibition applies in one state but not the other. Some states treat simple possession of cocaine as a felony, so a possession conviction will result in a federal firearm prohibition, even though simple possession of cocaine is not even a felony under federal law.

Finally, federal jurisdiction over firearms possession is premised on the notion that a firearm that has crossed a state line at some point in the past means that the firearm is "in or affecting" interstate commerce, even if a felon obtained the gun in his own state and never took it out of the state. Because of this flimsy jurisdictional hook, the simple cocaine possessor who gets a gun manufactured in a different state is going to the federal pen, while a convicted murderer who obtains a gun that was manufactured in his own state isn't prohibited under federal law.

Anyway, I'm not opposed to a reasonable period of prohibition following completion of a sentence, but the restoration of rights should be automatic after that period for all but truly violent felons, or where a court makes a specific finding that a defendant should be required to apply for restoration of rights.

Posted by: C.E. | Nov 14, 2011 10:40:17 PM

To all the above:

The Law is an Ass!

Why do you continue to pay homage (and taxes) to Baal? It must be for employment reasons.

The second amendment is absolute! It is not what nine men in robes think. Those intelligent enough to understand know when they are being taken for a mental ride.

Taking away voting rights and gun rights after someone has served their just sentence, and current sex-offender laws (POSAWA) are for those who don't care that their nation is headed downward and the only employment is for a more aggressive LE!

Yes, there are some felons who should not have the right to firearms and some who should be listed as sex-offenders, but current law is JUST PLAIN STUPID no matter how many CFR citations you sight!

Posted by: albeed | Nov 14, 2011 11:04:25 PM

The good news is the someone is picking apart the mumbo-jumbo pretzel logic and revealing it for what it is: propaganda. For that, I cannot thank our host enough. Could it be that more and more people will dissect a news story before jumping on the reply bandwagon? Could this be the start a trend?

Posted by: George | Nov 14, 2011 11:39:05 PM


"Rodsmith, traditionally, felons were deprived of certain rights, including voting and gun rights, and could have them deprived after they served their punishment behind bars. "Rights" still are rights if they have certain conditions. Gun and voting rights in particular traditionally had certain conditions."

Horsh shit....UNLESS by traditionally your talking about the last 50 years or so! till the JFK stupidity it NOT tradional or even LEGAL! to remove EITHER however last time i looked the RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS is part of the U.S. CONSTUITION! hell even those idiots on the USSC just recently stated ALL american had a right a handgun for self defence in the home..but choaked when some govt stooge mentioned ex felons!

Posted by: rodsmith | Nov 15, 2011 12:07:02 AM

If you read the NYT report closely, they highlighted instances in which judges had no choice in restoring gun rights to felons, and also stated that judges were given little information about the applicants' previous offenses. Many of the respondents here are cherry-picking facts to support their personal positions.

To posit that felons with restored gun rights might actually increase public safety is just preposterous. The felons featured in the article were violent offenders who should never have regained gun rights--especially given the mental health factors and previous violent offenses. Gun rights and voting rights are not even close to being the same thing. It's hard to harm another person with a ballot.

No felon who has physically victimized another human being, or seriously threatened to, should be permitted to own firearms. I thought punishment was supposed to be just that--consequences for your unlawful behavior. As for the attempt to correlate lower recidivism among this small cohort by saying they have an awareness of how their actions might affect their restored gun rights, where was the felon's awareness of the consequences of his/her actions when he/she committed the original felony? Pretty weak thinking, folks.

Apparently, it is acceptable to those who are posting here that several of the people in the article murdered or severely injured others after restoration. What a shameful testimony to how out of place our priorities have become when it comes to guns.

Posted by: Lori O'Neill | Nov 15, 2011 10:27:35 AM

well lori in those cases where someone has comitted a crime espeicaly a real as aaposed to statuary violent crime and then goes to prison and then when released does it again. Well that's what a bullet to the brain is for!

i have never had a problem with giving anyone a 2nd chance...but a 3rd one NOT A CHANCE!

as for your statement about "cherry picking" sorry i don't consider the U.S. CONSTUTION a CHERRY! not to mention 200 years of history. up till the crazy time after the JFK killing you could walk out of prison and be handed everything you had at the time...including the gun! then walk across the street to vote if they were having one!

Posted by: rodsmith | Nov 15, 2011 12:55:34 PM

I didn't notice this question being asked.

How many of those who went on to commit another crime used a gun in the commission of the crime? I'd think that would be a huge deal. If 200 [out of the 3,300] committed a crime, not involving a fire arm, then the point of the article if it is against felons getting their gun rights back is mute. Isn't it?

Posted by: Huh? | Nov 15, 2011 5:40:21 PM

LOL Huh? that question is right up there with the one about sex offender reoffense rates....the govt DOESN'T WANT TO KNOW!

don't want to let a few facts mess up a great fear campaign!

Posted by: rodsmith | Nov 15, 2011 9:46:07 PM

rodsmith: 'LOL Huh? that question is right up there with the one about sex offender reoffense rates....the govt DOESN'T WANT TO KNOW!"

So the DOJ BJS reports, that you have cited, don't count? :-p

Posted by: Huh? | Nov 15, 2011 10:01:33 PM

LOL there is a big diff between the GOVT i.e politicians and the hourly flunkys who create the reports that the govt then either buries or ignores!

we have 1,000's of reports covering almost a MILLION subjects that say just about every law passed in the last decade concering sex crimes is not only USELESS and ILLEGAL. but COUNTER PRODECTIVE and are MAKING THE PROBLEM WORSE!

that's what i'm talking about when i say THEY DON'T WANT TO KNOW!

Posted by: rodsmith | Nov 16, 2011 1:32:45 PM

i was convicted of a felony at the age of 19 for picking up a dog in the woods in ky. that has been 20 years ago and it has made my life harder than it should have been i was young and dumb and needed to be punished but not for the rest of my life so because of being a felon i have been unable to get the good jobs i have worked most of my life in fast food or gas stations im not asking for a hand out just a chance so please follow this link and sign this petition so that people like me at least get a voice thank you.

Posted by: Ronnie Rose | Jan 10, 2013 1:02:58 PM

I know that most of the public call someone with a felony a scumbag or a degenerate. They should look into their own past. Everyone has committed some type of crime in their life. You just have to be willing to be honest with yourself. we are divided by those caught and punished and those who got away with what they've committed. Those who have gotten away with their crimes pretend they are somehow better than those who were punished. I can't count how many girls and boys have admitted to being molested but never told someone about it. These molesters have gotten away with a far worse crime than mine. I was convicted in 1996 of drug charges. I was 21. I received a 20 month sentence. I'm still being punished today. I had dreams, as everyone does, and had them crushed by my addition. I needed help not punishment. It's been 18 years-nearly half my life. I have had my dreams crushed, grants for college denied, jobs denied, and I have lost friends when they found out I was a convicted felon(even though that person admitted to growing pot in his twenties), and my outlook on life diminished. I can't protect myself or my family with a firearm, I can't vote in some states-even though I pay the elected officials' salaries, and I can't pursue my dreams. I know it's my fault. I had problems in my life that led me to be a alcoholic and then an addict. I haven't touched drugs or alcohol in 18 years. I cleaned up my life. How about politicians? Look up their records. Had President Obama been caught, with the cocaine he wrote about using in his books, he would not be president. How about President Bush? How many crimes did he get away with? Too long to list. Ted Kennedy, Charlie Rangel, Newt Gigrich-the list goes on and on. So many Americans are willing to cast stones at someone like me. If you are one of those people, take a good, hard look at your own past. What have you done? My life is an open book to anyone with a computer. I've done far more good in my life than bad, but the good is not tallied. It's enough to make me want to move to a real, free country. Non-violent felons should get their rights back upon completion of their sentence. I'll say this; I look forward to death. I see it as a doorway to true forgiveness. Society has become my hell, and the people who run are Satan's council. Also the non-convicted, stone-throwing population are the demons. To receive a second chance the President has got to sign off on a pardon I've had in the pipeline for the last 8 years. It takes 10 years just to be seen by the CIA for an interview. I've been punished enough, again, nearly half my life. I would have rather spent 10 additional years in prison if it meant a real second chance when I got out. Society is that bad and judgmental. I am now 39 and I want my rights back-all of them.

Posted by: Jason V | Sep 27, 2014 1:34:30 AM

I'm the author of the above comment. If anyone wishes to contact me on this matter my email is: handoftool@hotmail.com I don't hide.

Posted by: Jason V | Sep 27, 2014 1:37:58 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB