Pardons with gun rights once existed primarily for those who committed property crimes, minor thefts or other offenses that caused no physical harm to their victims. Sometimes, the pardons excused youthful mistakes by people whose records as exemplary citizens had spanned decades.
But in a departure from trends in many other states, Georgia has dramatically increased the proportion of violent offenders among those regaining firearms privileges, the Journal-Constitution found in analyzing gun-rights pardons granted to more than 1,400 felons from 2008 to 2013. Violent offenders accounted for 6 percent of all who received gun-rights pardons in 2008; last year, 31 percent.
The parole board has restored gun rights for 32 people who committed murder or other forms of homicide, 44 sex offenders, 96 people convicted of aggravated assault, and 68 whose crimes included weapons offenses. Thirty-eight of those 68 had been found guilty of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon – a crime that a gun-rights pardon renders moot.
The parole board’s five members declined to be interviewed. They give no public explanations of their decisions and keep their investigative records and decision-making process confidential.
No current member sat on the board in 2008, the first of the six years the Journal-Constitution examined. The longest-serving member took office in January 2009.
The board’s spokesman, Steve Hayes, said the turnover among board members in recent years could explain increases in gun pardons overall and in those granted to violent offenders.
“It’s depending on the board,” Hayes said. “It’s a case-by-case situation.”
In addition, the board reorganized the staff of its pardons unit in 2012 and assigned employees from other sections to help process felons’ applications.
Reviews now take six to nine months on average, Hayes said, compared to a year or more before the reorgnization. The board has boasted of efficiencies gained while accelerating the process.
“Even though a thorough investigation process cannot be compromised,” the board said in its 2012 annual report, “the overall process was shortened considerably, allowing applicants to receive decisions in a shorter time span.”
And, as it often turns out, with the outcomes the applicants desired.
Practically from the moment of his arrest in 1995, William Bishop made his intentions clear.
“The defendant,” a Lamar County sheriff’s deputy noted on an arrest warrant, “has threatened to kill anyone who reports him, and himself, when he is released from jail.”
Bishop later pleaded guilty, admitting he had repeatedly molested two children, one of them for 4 ½ years. Prosecutors said they had evidence that Bishop also molested two other children and that his acts stretched from at least 1980 to 1992. All the victims were girls younger than 14.
A judge sentenced Bishop to 10 years in prison. He got out in April 2005 and has lived in Barnesville since. Numerous efforts to contact Bishop in recent weeks were unsuccessful.
Five years after leaving prison, Bishop was eligible to ask for a gun-rights pardon. He did so in 2011.
Just a few years earlier, such a request most likely would not have gone far.
The parole board had rarely granted more than a handful of gun-rights pardons to violent offenders in any single year, according to the Journal-Constitution’s analysis of the board’s data. But in 2012, the board suddenly became more amenable to violent offenders’ gun-rights requests.
The number of gun-rights pardons for such felons more than doubled, to 71, in 2012 — and then tripled, to 208, in 2013.
As late as 2005, the parole board’s annual reports had referred to a policy to not restore gun rights for anyone who used a firearm while committing a crime. Beginning in 2006, the reports no longer contained such language.
Hayes, the board’s spokesman, said recently that officials could find no record of such a policy or of a vote to rescind it.
Gale Buckner, a former chairwoman of the parole board who served from 2005 to 2011, said she and her colleagues sometimes issued pardons to people with violent histories. But she said those applicants stood out when the board considered other factors: the length of time since a crime, a felon’s lifestyle since prison or probation, or indications that a crime represented an error in judgment rather than part of a pattern of behavior.
“We looked at each case individually to make an independent decision,” Buckner said.
Still, she said permitting many felons, especially those with violent pasts, to acquire firearms is inherently risky.
“You can’t be a soothsayer and know what someone’s future is going to hold,” said Buckner, now a judge in Murray County. “That is something that is taken very seriously.”
Little research exists on whether felons who regain their firearms rights go on to commit additional crimes, with or without guns. The Journal-Constitution’s unscientific sampling of 100 Georgia cases found 13 felons who were accused of committing crimes after they received gun-rights pardons. But none appeared to be a violent offense or to involve firearms. The few studies conducted in other states have shown a similar result.
Of course, most of the violent felons from Georgia received their pardons within the past two years. A longer term of study could produce different findings.
But it may not be possible even to calculate the number of felons who regain gun rights in the United States each year, criminal-justice officials and researchers said.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which has conducted the most extensive and most widely cited studies, has published data suggesting that states grant about 2,000 pardons with gun rights each year. The number does not include gun rights restored by court orders, a practice allowed in 13 states. Nor does it include cases from the two states where the state police may restore firearms rights in certain situations, or the rights that some non-violent offenders automatically regain in 17 states and the District of Columbia.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia permanently revoke the gun rights of certain offenders, especially those who used a gun to commit a crime, who killed or wounded another person, or who committed domestic violence or crimes against children. As a practical matter, slightly more than half the states rarely, if ever, restore gun rights to more than five to 10 people a year.
Georgia is one of seven states that averages 100 or more gun-rights pardons ever year.
Most people seeking gun rights pose no harm, said Margaret Colgate Love, a lawyer in Washington who was the U.S. pardon attorney, responsible for the federal government’s executive clemency program, from 1990 to 1997.
“They want to hunt,” Love said in an interview. “They’re not going to rob a 7-Eleven.”
In Georgia, the parole board won’t say why any offender wanted to regain his or her gun rights – or why it approved any pardon applications. A review of numerous cases, however, suggests that the board is taking a liberal approach to the gun-rights requests.
In March 2013, for instance, the board restored the firearms rights of a 41-year-old man from Ben Hill County who was placed under tight restrictions while serving probation for aggravated assault. A judge had ordered the man to continue mental health counseling and medication – and ruled he was to have “no access to any weapons.”
Nothing in the public record explains why those restrictions would no longer be needed.
Also last year, the board took up a request from Joe Nathan Wright of Savannah, whose criminal history began with a second-degree manslaughter conviction in New York State in 1975. He spent about six months in prison.
Five years later, Wright – known as Nate – visited his brother Earl in Dublin, Georgia, their hometown. Earl had been in conflict with their brother-in-law, who lived next door. According to court records, Nate and Earl were drinking together when Earl mentioned that the brother-in-law had struck his head.
“Let’s go over and get it over with him,” Earl said.
Witnesses later reporting hearing gunshots and the sound of Earl’s voice: “Kill him! Kill him!”
That evening, Nate told Earl he had nothing to worry about.
“No,” Earl said. “Because you shot him.”
Both received life sentences for murder. They were paroled in the early 2000s, and Earl died in 2005. Last September, the parole board restored gun rights to Nate, now 69 years old.
Reached by telephone last week, Wright declined to comment.
OUT, NOT FREE
People on Georgia’s sex offender registry are perhaps the most regulated class of citizens in the state. Lawmakers and judges have repeatedly concluded that the offenders forfeited basic rights by committing heinous crimes.
Yet the parole board restored gun rights to seven registered sex offenders between 2008 and 2013, all of whom assaulted children or teenagers.
In addition to William Bishop, the sex offender from Barnesville, the board awarded gun rights to child molesters from Jasper County, Fayetteville, Dalton and Newnan and to a Mitchell County man who was convicted of sexual assault against a person in custody – a student at the high school where he taught French.
None had more complicated histories than Brandon Earl Hayes.
He already was on probation, for car theft, when authorities in Whitfield County charged him with statutory rape in 1997. At the time, Hayes was 19 and unemployed. He pleaded guilty, admitting to a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl. He served 10 months in prison and, when he got out, was listed on the state’s sex offender registry.
Ten weeks later, he was back in jail. Police said Hayes and a friend each stole five packs of cigarettes from the Wal-Mart in Dalton. A judge sentenced Hayes to 120 days in jail.
The next year, 2000, Hayes returned to prison, this time for theft of a motor vehicle or parts. He served 14 months.
By the time the parole board restored his gun rights in December 2011, however, Hayes had gone a decade without an arrest.
That did not last.
Whitfield County officials arrested Hayes in September 2012 for failing to meet requirements of the sex offender law. He had moved from Whitfield to Murray County, but failed to register with either county’s sheriff. He pleaded guilty and was placed on probation for eight years.
Then, late this spring, he returned to the Whitfield County jail on another probation violation; again, he had failed to tell authorities he had moved out of the county. Recent efforts to interview him were not successful.
Hayes, 36, is out of jail now, but he is not entirely free.
Because of his most recent conviction, he no longer has the right to have a gun.
How Georgia compares
Laws on restoring gun rights to people convicted of felonies vary widely among the states, but most have a process on the books.
These states permanently revoke gun rights of people convicted of various violent crimes:
Alaska, California, District of Columbia, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, Wyoming
Some automatically restore gun rights for certain non-violent offenders after rehabilitation:
Alaska, District of Columbia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas*, Virginia, Wyoming
In these states, gun rights are restored to no more than an average of 10 offenders a year:
Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming
These states average 100 or more gun-rights restorations a year:
Alabama, California, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Oklahoma, South Carolina
*Five years after leaving prison, felons may possess firearms, but only in their homes.
Sources: National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, U.S. Justice Department, National Conference of State Legislatures, AJC research
ABOUT THIS SERIES
When an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found that growing numbers of felons in Georgia are regaining the right to own firearms, it raised a question: How carefully is the state parole board scrutinizing the cases before deciding? Board members wouldn’t talk about their decisions. But the AJC’s review of dozens of cases, using court records and other public documents, suggests that the board may not dig deep before voting.
Part One: Felons re-arm
A former police officer was sent to prison for sexually assaulting a domestic violence victim. But before that, records show, he was accused of beating a man so severely his brain bled, and of pressuring at least 10 women to have sex to avoid arrest, and other misconduct. So why did the parole board grant his request to own guns again? Read it now at MyAJC.com
Part Two: Violent offenders
Sexual predators and others convicted of violent crimes now are more likely to win the right to own guns.
Part Three: State Secret
Georgia’s process for restoring gun rights to ex-cons is among the most secretive in the nation. Not even victims get word. Coming Tuesday in the Journal-Constitution.