Criminal Justice

Rand Paul Wants to Restore Felons' Voting Rights. What About Their Gun Rights?

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Comedy Central

This week Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) plans to introduce a bill that would restore the federal voting rights of nonviolent felons who have completed their prison terms or served at least a year of probation. Citing figures from the Sentencing Project, Politico notes that "nearly 8 percent of the black population currently cannot vote, compared with 1.8 percent of the nonblack population." As Paul points out, blacks are also disproportionately affected by the mandatory minimum sentences he wants to abolish. Politico cites evidence that Paul's support for such reforms is helping him among African-American voters: "A recent poll in Kentucky showed Paul garnering 29 percent of the African-American vote—a huge bump from the 13 percent he received during his 2010 Senate campaign." Asked about the political calculus underlying his criminal-justice proposals, Paul says: "I believe in these issues. But I'm a politician, and we want more votes. Even if Republicans don't get more votes, we feel like we've done the right thing."

I agree that it's the right thing, although I would support the broader approach favored by the ACLU, which would restore voting rights to all felons who have served their time, regardless of the crimes they committed. It has never made sense to me that committing a felony should forever turn someone into a second-class citizen, which contradicts the goal of reintegrating people into society after they've completed their sentences. In the same vein, why should everyone convicted of a felony be permanently stripped of his Second Amendment rights? Paul likes to tell the story of a friend's brother who to this day is not allowed to vote because of a 20-year-old marijuana conviction. It makes no more sense that to this day he is not allowed to own a gun, and I imagine that many Americans attach more value to the fundamental human right of armed self-defense than they do to the privilege of checking off the least odious choice on a list of politicians every couple of years. Amending the Gun Control Act of 1968 to eliminate such arbitrary deprivations of liberty seems like another issue that could give rise to interesting and productive left-right alliances.