Gun shop manager Patrick Jones says he wants to sell as many firearms as he can.
But Jones won’t do business with known medical cannabis patients, such as Army Spc. Sean Merritt, an honorably discharged and disabled veteran.
That refusal has drawn criticism from Merritt and other medical marijuana advocates, who have twice gone to Redding City Council chambers to denounce Jones, who happens to be mayor, for violating patients’ rights.
“There is nothing in state law that says I cannot own or possess a firearm,” Merritt said at a recent council meeting. “And to be told as such is branding me as a severe mental patient or a felon. I am neither.”
Jones has said he is merely following the law – in this case, a federal law that forbids gun dealers from selling firearms to anyone who is “an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana.”
Would-be gun owners are required to fill out a federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) form that poses questions about the buyer’s criminal history, mental health, citizenship and drug use.
Along with marijuana, Question 11e on the ATF form asks about “any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance.”
If a buyer marks “yes” to Question 11e, the sale cannot go forward, Jones said.
Merritt uses medical cannabis to help dampen the constant stabbing pain in his groin and spasms in his thigh he has suffered since a military doctor performing a hernia operation on him cut a nerve.
The pharmaceuticals prescribed to Merritt by the Veterans Administration left him feeling “like a zombie,” he has said. Merritt credits cannabis for allowing him a better life.
Merritt said he came to California so he could lawfully use medical cannabis.
California’s Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act, carves out an exemption from prosecution under state drug laws for people using marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation.
And the Obama administration has said it won’t prosecute medical marijuana users under federal drug laws, as long as they are following state laws.
Christine Gasparac, press secretary for the state Department of Justice, said nothing in state law would prevent a medical cannabis user from buying a gun.
“But the ATF is a federal form,” Gasparac said, adding that she was unaware of any case law clarifying the issue.
The apparent conflict between state and federal law has put some gun dealers in a tough position.
Rich Howell, general manager at the Olde West Gun & Loan Co. in Redding, said he won’t coach people on how to answer Question 11e when asked.
“That’s a determination as to what is unlawful, and we don’t interpret the law,” Howell said. “We just have to make sure when someone comes in to purchase, it is done in an acceptable, legal manner.”
Obviously, gun ownership would not be illegal under Proposition 215, Howell said. But it’s not so clear under federal law, he said.
People who use medical marijuana aren’t necessarily addicts, any more than those who use Vicodin or OxyContin are addicts, Howell said.
Yet marijuana is a controlled substance under federal law, while Vicodin and OxyContin are not.
“We do need clarification, and it has to come from the ATF,” Howell said. “Until that direction comes, I say, ‘Legally, I can’t tell you.’ “
Drew Wade, an ATF spokesman in Washington, D.C., said he could not say off the top of his head whether federal law trumped state law on the question of whether medical cannabis patients can buy firearms.
For Jones, the federal law is clear.
“I have called ATF and they have told me the law,” Jones said, adding that he has spoken with two different field officers on two separate occasions just to make sure. “It’s not up for interpretation, it’s not a debatable issue. If a person is declaring they are a medical marijuana patient, I cannot sell to them.”
Jones said he has turned away two potential customers.
Merritt was not one of them.
He said Merritt had called Jones’ Fort, the family-owned gun store in east Redding, after hearing of other medical marijuana patients who had been denied a gun purchase there.
“I was doing a little investigative journalism,” Merritt said.
Merritt said he asked a clerk if he could buy a gun, even if he was using morphine. The clerk said yes.
Merritt asked if he could buy a gun if he was using Klonopin. Again, the clerk said yes. Then Merrit asked about marijuana, and the clerk told him no.
Jones confirmed the conversation took place as Merritt described it and said he would have told Merritt the same thing.
“I’m here to sell guns,” Jones said. “I don’t like turning people away, but I have to abide by the law, whether I like it or not. And when you buy a firearm, you have to follow federal law, despite what California says.”
By Scott Mobley