Federal prosecutors figured Congress had people like Baldemar Gomez in mind when it created the law prohibiting felons from possessing firearms.

"He is an extremely violent person," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim Lindquist in Boise, Idaho, citing Gomez's convictions for second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and battery on a correctional officer.Even Gomez's own attorney, Scott E. Fouser, noted almost ruefully that he's "one of those guys who always needs a lawyer."

Yet, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Gomez's conviction on charges of violating the federal gun law, citing a loophole that allows thousands of people convicted of felonies to own firearms legally.

The loophole - cited by other federal courts as well - is that the law exempts felons whose civil rights have been restored by a state.

Many states automatically restore convicts' civil rights upon completion of their sentence, probation or parole, or five to 15 years after the state supervision ends. The felons may then obtain firearms without violating the federal law unless the state specifically bars them from doing so.

Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan and Montana restore civil rights immediately, while Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon and South Dakota impose waiting periods, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

In 1987, when Gomez was arrested during a drug raid, Idaho was one of the states that automatically restored civil rights of felons who had served their time.

"When Baldemar walked out of the penitentiary, someone could have been standing there and handed him a shotgun and it would have been entirely legal under Idaho law," Lindquist said.

In reaction to Gomez's case, the Idaho Legislature changed its law so people convicted of violent crimes or drug-related felonies don't get their civil rights back automatically. To possess guns legally, they must wait five years after their sentences end and then get state approval.

Other states also have eliminated or restricted the loophole, while some, including Michigan, are considering legislation to do so. But the changes are unlikely to affect the thousands of felons whose rights were restored earlier.

The government has lost a number of cases similar to that of Gomez, whose earlier convictions were on state charges.

But the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals went even further when it ruled in October in a Minnesota case that states can even exempt people convicted of federal felonies from the federal gun law, as long as the state in which they were convicted restores their civil rights.

The government doesn't plan to appeal the rulings to the Supreme Court because there is little likelihood of winning, said ATF's Jack Killorin.

Federal law enforcement efforts, meanwhile, are suffering.

"It throws a real monkey wrench into that process . . . trying to focus on violent offenders," said U.S. Attorney Stephen Markman in Detroit, whose office recently lost a felon-in-possession case.

In that case, U.S. District Judge Paul V. Gadola ruled that, given Michigan's laws, "no felon could be indicted under the Federal Gun Control Act for possessing a rifle, a shotgun, a machine gun, a semiautomatic assault weapon or even a cannon in the state of Michigan."

Bernard H. La Forest, ATF's Detroit office chief, said Gadola's ruling could jeopardize about 750 pending and already decided cases in Michigan. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to hear arguments next month.

The loophole also could stymie the intended effects of the still-pending Brady Bill, which would delay gun sales while police check would-be buyers' criminal records. A records check "doesn't tell you whether a person can legally have a gun or not," Killorin said.

The Bush administration last year proposed revising the federal law to make it apply to those convicted of certain violent and drug-related offenses even if the states restored the felons' civil rights. But the effort died during congressional discussions of the crime bill, and no one has reintroduced the measure.

The loophole was created as a largely ignored part of the National Rifle Association-supported Firearms Owners' Protection Act in 1986.

One of the sponsors, James A. McClure, then a Republican senator, said he knew the measure's implications and that his home state of Idaho automatically restored convicts' rights on completion of their sentences.

McClure, now a Washington consultant, said someone with Gomez's criminal history should not be allowed to have a gun. But he added, "It's a matter for the state to address."

The NRA found it "grossly unfair" that someone who owned a gun legally under state law could be prosecuted under federal law, said Richard E. Gardiner, counsel to the NRA Institute.

Although the NRA views it as a states' rights issue, Gardiner said the NRA supported the administration's proposed revision. But it did so quietly, and the measure evaporated unnoticed.

The issue was relatively invisible in 1986 as well.

Even those aware of it thought "the felony status that one acquires is a lifetime status that only upon subsequent petition can be modified," said Eric Sterling, the House Judiciary crime subcommittee's assistant counsel in 1986.


(Additional information)

Here is a compilation of states that automatically restore civil rights, including firearms rights, to convicted felons either when their sentences end or later.

Federal courts have ruled that such people are exempted from the federal law prohibiting felons from having firearms.

The list is based on surveys by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. The surveys were based both on what the statutes say and on recent courts' interpretations.

Not included are the states that restored felons' civil rights automatically until recent years, when they changed their laws to curtail the practice.

The states are divided roughly according to their restrictions, or lack of them, on felons' rights to have guns.

- Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan and Montana felons get all their civil rights back automatically upon completion of their state supervision, the handgun center found, although Kentucky doesn't let felons have handguns.

- Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon and South Dakota automatically restore firearms rights to convicted felons - including those who committed violent crimes - but make them wait five to 15 years after they complete state supervision, the center and ATF found. In Massachusetts, felons can have long-barreled guns after five years, but they can't have handguns, ATF said.

- Felons in Idaho and Washington who commit certain serious, violent crimes do not get their civil rights - or their ability to possess firearms - restored automatically. But this does not apply to other felons.