United States v. Bean: Shoveling after the Elephant?


Thomas Bean’s felony conviction in Mexico implicated provisions of federal law that preclude certain persons, including specified felons, from owning or trading in firearms and ammunition which have been transported in interstate commerce. 18 USC Sec. 922. Affected persons can seek relief from the federal firearms disability by invoking procedures established in 18 USC Sec. 925(c) under the Dept of Treasury, Director of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (“ATF”). Beginning in 1992, Congress has enacted provisions annually in the ATF’s appropriations laws that ban it from investigating or acting upon Sec. 925(c) applications from individuals. Section 925(c) contains provisions for judicial review of agency determinations under the relief program. The federal appellate courts were not unanimous in assessing the impact of the appropriations ban. The majority view held that the ban precluded judicial intervention. Bean’s request for restoration of his firearms rights was returned by the ATF without action, and he then sought relief successfully in a federal district court in Texas. The US appealed to the 5th Circuit, which affirmed. On review, the US Sup. Ct reversed in a unanimous decision. United States v. Bean, 537 U.S. 71, 123 S. Ct. 584, 154 L. Ed. 2d 483, 2002 U.S. Lexis 9236 (No. 01-704, decided December 10, 2002), reversing 253 F.3d 234 (5th Cir. 2001), reh. den., reh. en banc den., 273 F.3d 1105 (5th Cir. Aug. 21, 2001) (unpublished table decision), judgment vacated and dismissed on remand, Bean v. United States, 322 F. 3d 829 (5th Cir. Feb. 19, 2003). The Court cited grammatical and policy reasons for its decision. Grammatically, the structure of the statute presupposed agency action as a predicate for judicial review; absent agency action, federal courts lack de novo jurisdiction to grant or deny Section 925(c) relief. The broad, “in the interest of the public” standards in the statute are best left to agency implementation, and the courts lack the investigative resources needed for a thorough inquiry into an applicant’s background before making such an important determination. This Article explores the statutory history of the firearms disability and relief laws, the caselaw developments before the appropriations ban, the appellate courts’ views of the appropriations ban, and the result and reasoning of the Supreme Court’s decision.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Jurisdiction | Jurisprudence | Legal Remedies | Legislation

Date of this Version

October 2003