Being convicted of a felony–even a violent one–is not enough to deprive someone of their Second Amendment rights for life, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, an Obama appointee, dismissed a felon-in-possession of a firearm prosecution against Jesse Bullock, a Mississippi man, on Wednesday. Judge Reeves ruled that the federal government failed to meet its burden of showing that the historical tradition of firearms regulation supported permanently disarming Bullock for his past crimes, as required under the Supreme Court’s latest precedent.
“The government’s arguments for permanently disarming Mr. Bullock, however, rest upon the mirage of dicta, buttressed by a cloud of law review articles that do not support disarming him,” Judge Reeves wrote in United States v. Bullock. “In Bruen, the State of New York presented 700 years of history to try and defend its early 1900s‐era gun licensing law. That was not enough. Bruen requires no less skepticism here, where the challenged law is even younger.”
The ruling marks the first U.S. District Court to strike down the federal prohibition on convicted felons possessing firearms—18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Though its opinion only extends to the defendant Bullock, it will undoubtedly add fuel to the growing legal fire over who can be prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms following the Supreme Court’s decision in 2022’s New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v Bruen. It could also help motivate the Supreme Court to step in and further expound on where the limits of Second Amendment protections lie.
To date, federal courts have been split over whether the Second Amendment protects non-violent felons, unlawful drug users, persons under felony indictment, and those subject to a domestic violence restraining order.
Judge Reeves made headlines in November of last year when he was first assigned to hear Bullock’s case and consider whether or not he could be disarmed. He publicly chastised the Supreme Court for its legal test outlined in the Bruen decision and its emphasis on history in reaching outcomes.
“This Court is not a trained historian. The Justices of the Supreme Court, distinguished as they may be, are not trained historians,” he wrote in an opinion ordering the Department of Justice to brief him on whether he needed to appoint a historian to decide the case. “We are not experts in what white, wealthy, and male property owners thought about firearms regulation in 1791. Yet we are now expected to play historian in the name of constitutional adjudication.”
He was no less forceful in his criticism of the High Court and its Bruen decision in his 77-page dismissal opinion on Wednesday.
“In Second Amendment cases, though, the pyramid is turned on its head,” Reeves wrote. “The trial record can be nonexistent. None of the history is ‘tested in an adversarial proceeding,’ and there may be no factual findings that ordinarily would receive some form of deference. The appellate courts do the best with the briefs they have, but all that matters is the Supreme Court’s historical review, conducted de novo as a legal rather than a factual question, with dozens of amicus briefs never before seen by another court. Is this the best way of doing justice?”
Nevertheless, under the test spelled out by the Bruen decision, Reeves found that the government failed to demonstrate a historical tradition of permanently disarming felons. Instead, he noted that the government simply pointed to Supreme Court dicta or the “more than 120 U.S. District Court decisions” that have upheld the felon-in-possession ban since Bruen to show that it is presumptively constitutional, which he said was insufficient.
“The government’s citation to the mere volume of cases is not enough,” Reeves wrote. “The federal felon‐in‐possession ban was enacted in 1938, not 1791 or 1868—the years the Second and Fourteenth Amendments were ratified. The government’s brief in this case does not identify a ‘well‐established and representative historical analogue’ from either era supporting the categorical disarmament of tens of millions of Americans who seek to keep firearms in their home for self‐defense.”
The case centered around Jessie Bullock, who, in 1992, was convicted of aggravated assault and manslaughter for a “deadly bar fight.” He served 15 years in prison. He also was convicted of fleeing law enforcement and attempted aggravated assault of a law enforcement officer in 2015 and received a five-year suspended sentence. In 2018, he was indicted for knowingly possessing a firearm as a convicted felon, but he was not arrested until 2020. After a series of pandemic-related delays, Bullock was finally set to go to trial over the gun charge in August 2022 before he filed a motion to have his charge dismissed in light of Bruen.
Judge Reeves conducted his own review of the reasoning and laws cited in dozens of other post-Bruen cases challenging prohibited person restrictions but found there was no clear analog for the punishment Bullock received. And he said the government, who had the burden to prove the law was consistent with American tradition, didn’t provide enough evidence to change his analysis.
“[T]he plain text of the Second Amendment covers Mr. Bullock’s conduct—possession of ordinary firearms in the home—and therefore presumptively protects him,” Reeves wrote.
While much of the opinion was spent criticizing the Supreme Court’s view of the Second Amendment and its new test for applying it, Judge Reeves ultimately said the high standard might be justified.
“Maybe the Supreme Court is correct that in this country, to ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,’ the government should have the burden of justifying itself when it deprives people of their constitutional rights,” he wrote. “Perhaps the Court is also correct that constitutional rights should be defined expansively.”
However, he also said the Court has not consistently protected other constitutionally-guaranteed rights to the same degree. He argued that the right to a speedy trial, the right to a writ of habeas corpus, and the right to vote have all been whittled down while gun rights have been restored.
“In breathing new life into the Second Amendment, though, the Court has unintentionally revealed how it has suffocated other fundamental Constitutional rights,” Reeves wrote. “Americans are waiting for Heller and Bruen’s reasoning to reach the rest of the Constitution.”
The Department of Justice declined to comment on the ruling or its plans for an appeal.