Retired soldier can't buy rifle over 1971 pot conviction
By DANE SCHILLER | The Houston Chronicle | Published: July 10, 2013
A retired Army veteran who fired tanks, cannons and machine guns while protecting this nation recently asked the U.S. government for the green light to buy a .22-caliber rifle from a Wal-Mart in Tomball.
The FBI turned down Ron Kelly's application for gun ownership because of a 1971 conviction for minor drug possession.
He was busted with a small bag of marijuana while in high school in North Carolina. As a first-time offender, he was sentenced to a year of probation.
Two years later, right about the time the U.S. was withdrawing from the Vietnam War and there was a hippie on every corner, he enlisted in the Army.
"I went on to serve 20 years," said Kelly, who often wears a camouflaged Army cap over his head of gray hair. "I had a top-secret clearance. It is amazing that they won't let me buy a gun for a misdemeanor 42 years ago."
He vows to continue to fight for what he says is his right to a gun in his home.
"I am ashamed of the way my government has treated me," said Kelly, who served as an infantryman as well as a scout and drill sergeant. "The government may have the greatest of intentions with the (law,) but they messed it up."
Kelly, 59, is one of more than 881,000 people in Texas so far this year to have had their backgrounds checked as part of requests to buy firearms or explosives, and one of the very few to be rejected.
'Something is not right'
The Lone Star State continues to lead the United States in the number of such checks, according to the FBI.
About 1 percent of them nationwide are denied, landing Kelly in the same situation as people who have renounced their U.S. citizenship, been dishonorably discharged from the military or convicted of domestic violence.
Nearly 600,000 denials since 1998 have come for the same reason Kelly was rejected -- a criminal conviction. In Kelly's case this amounted to a misdemeanor punishable by more than two years in jail.
Despite what potentially could have happened to him as a 17-year-old when he stood before a judge, Kelly got a slap on the wrist, and says he has had no more run-ins with the law.
Alice Tripp, of the Texas Rifle Association, said it was "ridiculous" that an ex-soldier once entrusted with the weaponry of war is denied permission to own a gun because of a misdemeanor from so long ago.
"It is crazy. Something is not right," Tripp said. "This is the strangest thing I've heard of in my life."
In Durham, N.C., where Kelly was convicted, officials at the courthouse, the police department and the district attorney's office said he was arrested so long ago that records were not computerized or readily available, if indeed they could even be found.
No one seemed to know how the FBI could have even known about such an old conviction.
Burden on applicant
An FBI spokesman said he could not comment on questions specifically about Kelly's case, but said if he feels he has been wronged by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the burden is on the rejected applicant, not the government, to come up with the paperwork to make the case for a change in his status.
The background investigations, which are required by federal law for anyone wanting to purchase a gun, are done electronically and usually take just a few minutes.
Requests are made over the phone or online by firearms dealers, and the FBI churns them through a national database.
Kelly was told at the Wal-Mart that his background review was delayed as there was something in his past that appeared to disqualify him from ownership.
He said he felt like someone wrongfully accused of passing a hot check when there was plenty of money in his account.
He launched an appeal by getting his fingerprints taken at the local police department and sending them, along with the appropriate paperwork, to the FBI for review.
On the appeal application he typed what has become his battle cry: He served honorably for 20 years in the Army and was now being denied the right to bear arms.
Writing to Washington
Late last month, a letter from the Department of Justice arrived in the mail with his answer: Once again, no.
He was told that based on his prior conviction in North Carolina he could not own a gun. He was also told that he could challenge the decision by seeking out the records from his arrest.
Kelly said he was floored -- but not defeated -- by the letter, and plans to keep trying.
He wrote this week to U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn asking for their help.
"I am not going to give up," Kelly vowed. "I want to have a gun."