WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court has ruled that drug users shouldn’t automatically be banned from having guns, marking the latest sign of upheaval in the nation’s firearm legal landscape and raising questions about a law cited in the case against Hunter Biden.
The opinion overturns the conviction of a Mississippi man, Patrick D. Daniels of Gulfport, who had two guns found in his car during a traffic stop last year and acknowledged using marijuana regularly but wasn’t accused of driving under the influence.
The appeals court cited the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which said gun laws must have strong historical roots — a finding that led to challenges of many of the nation’s gun laws.
“Our history and tradition may support some limits on an intoxicated person’s right to carry a weapon, but it does not justify disarming a sober citizen based exclusively on his past drug usage,” the three-judge panel for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans wrote in Wednesday’s ruling.
Central Role in Hunter Biden Prosecution
The ruling raises questions about the future of the law, which also had a central role in the proposed plea deal for Hunter Biden, the president’s son.
Hunter Biden had been expected to acknowledge that he had a gun during a period when he was addicted to drugs but avoid prosecution on the count if he stayed out of trouble. The deal, which was roundly criticized by Republicans, also called for two guilty pleas on misdemeanor tax charges. But the future of the agreement is unclear after a judge raised concerns about it last month.
The Fifth Circuit is now the highest court to consider the law since the Bruen decision was handed down — and its ruling will likely be cited in other similar cases around the U.S., said Jake Charles, a law professor at Pepperdine Caruso School of Law who studies the Second Amendment.
“As the first federal court appeals ruling on this provision, it’ll be persuasive and influential to other circuits and other district courts who are reviewing these kind of challenges,” he said.
Still, judges outside the Fifth Circuit region of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, aren’t bound by the ruling. Since Biden’s case was filed in Delaware it’s not expected to have an immediate impact on the case.
The ruling also acknowledges more than a dozen other times that lower-court judges have upheld the ban on “unlawful users” of controlled substances having guns since the Bruen case, though judges in some other cases have agreed that it doesn’t stand up under Bruen.
The appeals court called the opinion relatively narrow in applying to cases similar to the Mississippi case and, overall, the law is rarely used in cases without another crime involved.
The Justice Department declined to comment on whether the ruling would be appealed. Attorneys for Daniels and Biden did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
The ruling comes in a tumultuous legal landscape for U.S. firearm law. Judges also have struck down federal laws barring people from having guns if they have been charged with serious crimes and called into question the prohibition on licensed federal firearms dealers selling handguns to young adults under 21 and Delaware’s ban on the possession of homemade “ghost guns.”
The Fifth Circuit, moreover, also ruled in February that the government can’t stop people who have domestic violence restraining orders against them from owning guns. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Biden administration’s appeal in that case.