In a discussion I had recently about gun rights, someone brought up a United States Supreme Court case in which it was determined that an individual could become disqualified from particular rights. With the right to bear arms, for example, certain restrictions have been placed on those who commit certain crimes. By committing those crimes, they have disqualified themselves from the right to bear arms.

Similarly, felons have lost the right to vote.

Basically, I'm wondering what exactly this supreme court case was, or what the legal basis for this kind of ideology is.


To clarify (upon request) I am specifically wondering how someone can lose their rights due to criminal prosecution.

  • I'm going to need you to clarify a little bit; are you talking about the ability to voluntarily waive one's rights, or are you talking about how people can lose their rights as the result of a criminal prosecution?
    – Publius
    May 9, 2016 at 20:43
  • 1
    @Avi As a result of criminal prosecution
    – Saja
    May 9, 2016 at 20:59

3 Answers 3


In the U.S., and under the common law more generally, any criminal or civil court is the means through which one can lose their rights. In almost all cases, rights are subject to abridgement under due process, which is to say that few rights are absolute. Most of what are now considered absolute rights in the U.S. are enumerated under the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Other jurisdictions may not have the same rights.

In most cases, laws are passed amending the legal code which delineate the legal restriction and the sets of rights which will be restricted. The most commonly restricted right under U.S. penal code is the right to "liberty." One loses that right for a defined amount of time once having passed through due process in the court system. Similar mechanism exist for other rights.

An example of gun rights restriction is the Lautenberg Amendment, which restricts access to guns for those who are convicted—through due process—of domestic violence from gun possession. If a court views someone to be enough of a threat, it may issue a court order demanding they surrender their weapons, or not have any in their possession. In both cases, the court is the agent in restricting rights.

For a more in depth answer you may want to consult Law Stack Exchange.


For guns in particular, it's not necessarily a supreme court case, it's federal law. (See this list.) I can't speak to the reasoning behind the law, but my guess would be that Congress felt that people on the list are more likely to use guns to commit crimes, rather than their intended uses of hunting and self defense.

  • Of course there's a law, but surely someone challenged the constitutionality of that law in court.
    – D M
    Nov 23, 2017 at 1:19

Richardson v. Ramirez, a 1974 Supreme Court case, held that:

California, in disenfranchising convicted felons who have completed their sentences and paroles, does not violate the Equal Protection Clause.

One reason cited was the Fourteenth Amendment, which says in part (emphasis mine):

But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

The amendment clearly contemplates (without outright saying) that the right to vote can be taken away from someone who commits a crime.

A 2016 case from the Third Circuit (which confusingly has been titled Lynch v. Binderup, Sessions v. Binderup, and Binderup v. Attorney General, due to changes in which side was appealing and who the current Attorney General was) found that a person could challenge the as-applied constitutionality of the federal law mandating the loss of their gun rights (and also held that it was indeed unconstitutional as applied to this person.) In 2017 the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, leaving the ruling as precedent in that circuit but apparently leaving a circuit split.

  • This seems like the best answer to the question, as asked.
    – TTT
    Mar 19, 2018 at 5:14

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