The nation is once again gripped with gun fever, and debates over gun control are back on the table. But whether you’re pro- or anti-Second Amendment (or somewhere in between) doesn’t matter—if you use cannabis, then the federal government says you can’t buy a gun.
According to The New York Times, gun sales in the U.S. spiked during the pandemic and continue to rise. Many of those sales went to first-time gun owners, and the number of households where a firearm was present rose to a whopping 39 percent. Here in New Mexico, a record-breaking 202,322 guns were sold last year, and you can bet your keister that some of those guns went to cannabis consumers. Whether those consumers knew it or not, the federal government says many of those purchases were illegal.
A decade ago the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives clarified that all cannabis users are committing an unlawful act, whether or not the drug has been legalized in their state. In an open letter to firearms businesses, the ATF wrote, “During a firearms transaction, a potential transferee may advise you that he or she is a user of medical marijuana, or present a medical marijuana card as identification or proof of residency.” The letter states unequivocally that federal law prohibits any person who is an “unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance,” and that anyone who “uses or is addicted to marijuana, regardless of whether his or her state has passed legislation authorizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes, is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance.”
The problem stems from a question on Form 4473—the firearm transaction record that is required to purchase a gun from a Federal Firearms License holder—which reads, “Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?” Many gun transactions were being done under the belief that using cannabis in a state where it was legal was doing so “lawfully.” But if a marijuana user answered “no” to this question, they were—knowingly or not—lying on a federal document, a serious crime that can be penalized with a prison sentence. And if a gun seller knowingly sold a firearm to a cannabis user, then they broke the law, too.
This issue has largely been ignored, as it straddles two highly charged and controversial advocacy movements—both of which historically garner support from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Gun rights advocates and cannabis legalization advocates don’t immediately seem like obvious bedfellows.
But Republican Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski wrote a letter to the then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch in 2016 asking that the DOJ review gun regulations with regard to cannabis users. She noted that she didn’t support cannabis legalization in her state but said she was committed to playing a “constructive role” in seeing that her constituents got what they wanted.
“It is my judgment,” she wrote, “that denying Americans the personal Second Amendment right to possess firearms … for mere use of marijuana pursuant to state law is arbitrarily overboard.”
Alaskan firearms sales have also spiked during the pandemic, but the population there has always loved their guns. Murkowski’s concerns were more than intellectual in a state where about 1 in 1,000 residents owned a firearm.
“Without such a review,” she wrote, “I fear that otherwise law-abiding citizens will choose to answer the marijuana use question on Form 4473 ‘no’ either they believe their use is fully lawful or because they believe marijuana use consistent with state law should not subject them to a firearms disability. In either case they would potentially be exposed to criminal liability for false statements.”
In response Assistant Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik wrote that the policy wouldn’t be changing until cannabis was rescheduled. A federal appeals court had already ruled to uphold the ban on selling firearms to medical cannabis card-holders months before, though, and it seemed like Murkowski was just about the only person who cared about the issue.
Later that year the ATF went on to change Form 4473 to include a warning that clarified that local laws regarding cannabis use did not apply when filling out the form. The warning seems to have been the final word on the subject.
This clear disregard for state autonomy could disproportionately affect veterans suffering from combat-related injuries. The battle to give veterans access to medical cannabis to help treat PTSD and chronic pain has been gaining steam in recent years with support from members of Congress. Only weeks ago a federal bill was introduced that would allow U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to discuss medical cannabis with their patients, as long as they live in a state that has a medical cannabis program.
According to a Harvard/Northeastern University survey, the largest predictor of gun ownership was military service. Researchers found that 44 percent of veterans reported owning at least one firearm. It’s highly likely that if the ATF retains its current policy these veterans will be cut off from a potentially life-changing therapy.
For many on both the left and right, this is as it should be, but cannabis users need to realize that as long as the right to bear arms is upheld by the government, barring cannabis users from enjoying that right delineates them as part of a separate class. The substance of this problem doesn’t affect the issues surrounding gun control as much as it does those around the lack of basic rights afforded to cannabis users.
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