09/14/09 — DA not worried about law on guns, felons

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DA not worried about law on guns, felons

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on September 14, 2009 1:49 PM

Although he believes the case likely will show up in arguments posed by local defense attorneys, Wayne County District Attorney Branny Vickory downplayed the potential effect of the state Supreme Court's decision to make a one-man exception to a law barring felons from owning a gun.

The court's recent decision in the case of Barney Britt v. North Carolina, Vickory said, is an exception carved out exclusively for Britt, who argued that he simply wanted to hunt on his own land.

In that sense, and because it was filed as a civil complaint and not the result of an criminal charge against Britt -- who has not been convicted of anything since a 1979 charge for possessing illegal drugs -- Vickory wondered just how wide the scope of the case will be.

"The way the opinion is drawn up, it's specifically crafted out an exception for him," Vickory said.

That might make for some difficulty for district attorneys around the state as they attempt to interpret the High Court's ruling, he said.

But because Britt chose to pursue his right to possess a firearm through a civil complaint, it might be difficult for lawyers to apply the case when representing defendants charged with possession of a firearm as a convicted felon, Vickory said.

"This case definitely does not allow all felons to have a gun again," the district attorney said. "We're going to be hearing a lot about it ... (but) I'm not sure it's going to have a lot of ramifications other than that man, Mr. Britt."

The 5-2 decision in the Britt case early this month centered around Britt's challenge of a 2004 version of the law prohibiting felons from owning a gun.

In the majority decision, written by Justice Edward Thomas Brady, the court was careful to limit the scope of the decision. The majority's decision was based around how updates to the law first restored Britt's right to own a firearm, then took it away with the 2004 decision.

Vickory said he believes that the people most likely to have their gun ownership right restored are people in situations similar to Britt.

"It's going to invite a lot of those folks, who have not had anything else (criminal) brought against them ... it looks like we'll probably be seeing a lot of civil actions filed in local superior courts for a ruling," Vickory said.

Eddie Caldwell, the executive vice president of the N.C. Sheriff's Association, said that law enforcement will have to seek advice from N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper on how to handle such cases.

"Sheriffs' deputies and other law enforcement officers across the state will follow the law as stated," Caldwell said. "(They) will seek guidance from the N.C. Attorney General's Office on any questions that may arise requiring an interpretation of the law from the court case."