A state law barring felons from owning firearms unfairly prevented a Garner man from owning guns, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled Friday, thrusting the court into the national debate over gun ownership.

The opinion applied only to Barney Britt, who was convicted of a drug crime in 1979, and it didn't have an immediate effect on the thousands of other felons in the state. Criminal defense lawyers who practice in federal courts said they don't know what effect, if any, the opinion will have on federal rules, which prevent felons from buying and owning weapons except when a state has restored that right.

The ruling authored by Justice Edward Thomas Brady held that Britt should be able to own guns and that the state unfairly took away his right to own a firearm with a 2004 law that barred felons from owning firearms. Britt was convicted in 1979 of selling Quaalude pills, but he didn't have any further tangles with the law.

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