Russell Bootright, convicted of mail fraud in a little insurance dividend check scam, served his time, reestablished himself in his rural North Carolina town and set out to regain his right as a citizen, including the right to bear arms.

So, like 2,500 other convicted felons last year, he called the closet field office of the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and applied for permission to buy a gun. Six months later he got it.

"I don't even own a gun now, even after I got permission," Bootright said in a telephone interview. "I just felt it was a right I wanted. I live out in the country, and sometime I might want to go plinkin.'" (Plinkin', for the uninitiated, is the sport of shooting holes in tin cans and such.)

Former vice president Spiro T. Agnew, who pleaded no contest to a tax evasion charge in 1973 and resigned from office, was granted the same permission in 1974. He told reporters then that he needed a gun for personal protection.

Both Bootright and Agnew were forbidden by the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968 from owning firearms because they had been convicted of felonies, crimes carrying a sentence of more than one year. However, the act also provides such people a way to regain that right.

E. Howard Hunt, for example, is in the midst of the process. He spent a June night in 1972 sitting in the Howard Johnson's across the street from the Watergate, and was convicted of conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping. He was released from prison in 1977, and recently submitted his application to be allowed to own a gun.

It starts with a federal form, which must be filled out by anyone who wants to buy a gun legally. One question on the form: "Have you been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year?" a

If the answer is no, the sale proceeds and nobody checks to see if the answer is true. The forms are kept on file by the gun dealer, not the federal government, and become useful only after a gun is involved in a crime and its origin traced.

That means, of course, that an ex-felon who didn't care about the possibility of a $5,000 fine and five-year sentence for lying on the form could simply answer no and buy the gun.

If the answer is yes, however, the dealer cannot sell the gun until the bureau has investigated the applicant's case thoroughly and has granted approval. Agents interview friends, neighbors, employers, the local police chief and the individual, then make a recommendation. The file is forwarded to Washington for a final decision by the bureau's director.

"We want to be sure the person is not going to misuse the weapon," said Lyman Shaffer, the new head of the bureau's firearms enforcement branch. About half of the 2,500 who apply annually are turned down, he said. Those who are approved get a letter from the government and their names printed in the Federal Register.

The process, mandated by Congress, requires the work of 45 of the bureau's 1,500 agents each year.

Most of the applicants, Shaffer and his colleagues said, want a gun to go hunting, or, in some cases, for employment as a security guard.

Most of those who receive approval have committed white-collar crimes, usually tax evasion. Persons convicted of drug-related crimes make up the second-largest category of applicants.

"We get a lot of guys who were convicted of possession of two ounces of marijuana, and that's all he's ever done. He's been a churchgoer, pillar-of-the-community type," said Noel Haera. Shaffer's predecessor at the bureau.

"We also get guys who apply who are still in the can. They write us from prison because they don't have anything better to do."

The bureau's Dorothy Faulkner said that in the one follow-up study the agency has done, four of a sample of 150 applicants were found to have subsequently committed a crime. Two of them had been granted permission to own guns. Two had been denied.

Bootright, the North Carolinian covicted of mail fraud, said his experience with the agency was "no hassle, but they had a right long questionnaire." (The questionnaire that applicants must fill out before they are investigated is only two pages long, but has 20 questions, many with sub-parts, all of them nosy.)

When he and some of his insurance-selling colleagues got in trouble with the law, Bootright said, "We owned up to the whole thing. I told the postal inspectors everything we had done. We were caught up in a world that that wasn't leading anywhere.

"I paid my debt, and I just felt like I wanted to get my right restored."