Gun legislation aims to impede ‘judge-shopping’ felons

T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter

Two Columbia Heights Democrats want to make it tougher for violent felons to legally possess firearms.

Sen. Barb Goodwin and Rep. Carolyn Laine are carrying legislation requiring violent felons to appeal to the State Board of Pardons, a board consisting of the governor, chief justice of the state supreme court and state attorney general, for restoration of gun possession rights.

Under state law, felons convicted of crimes of violence are prohibited from possessing firearms for the remainder of their lives.

Other felons are prohibited until the restoration of their civil rights, which does not occur until completion of sentence.

But it is possible for felons to appeal to a judge to have their gun-possession rights restored, Goodwin said.

This allows felons the luxury to “shop around” for judges more likely to grant the request, she explained.

“There’s a lot of problems with that,” Goodwin said.

For one thing, local law enforcement doesn’t get notified — her bill does that, Goodwin said.

“I’m really hoping it’s going to pass,” she said.

Goodwin’s interest in felons and firearms was heightened by past gunplay in Columbia Heights.

Laine, who could be seen carrying her bill recently on the House floor looking for cosponsors, views it as a modest legislation.

It’s just tweaking existing state law, she said.

The board of pardons, Goodwin believes, may do a more thorough background check on a felon than a judge.

Like others, Goodwin views the recent Connecticut elementary school shooting as changing the gun debate.

“I am hoping for that,” said Goodwin, who unsuccessfully pursued her legislation last session.

She isn’t worried about political backlash.

“My main concern is Minnesota is the loosest state in the nation right now. And I don’t think it’s necessary,” Goodwin said.

While taking no position on Goodwin and Laine’s legislation, the Minnesota County Attorneys Association (MCAA) voted last week to include a series of gun-related provisions in its legislative agenda.

“I strongly support these proposals and the vote on MCAA’s Board of Directors, on which I serve, was unanimous as to this,” Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said in an email.

The MCAA agenda includes defining certain domestic violence offenses as “crimes of violence.” Currently, criminals convicted of certain domestic violence crimes cannot possess firearms, but are guilty of a gross misdemeanor only if caught with one.

But under the “crimes of violence” definition, a violation would be a felony — a minimum five-year sentence.

The MCAA also wants to define unlawful juvenile gun possession as a “crime of violence.” This could mean repeat juvenile gun offenders could face charges in adult court.

Additionally, county attorneys want to make it a crime to knowingly help people who legally cannot possess guns obtain them.

The MCAA wants state law to match federal law in prohibiting felons from possessing ammunition. Felons, under state law, cannot possess guns. But they can possess bullets and shells.

Finally, the MCAA wants a change in law concerning the mentally ill and firearm possession.

Currently, a person civilly committed to a treatment facility as mentally ill cannot possess firearms. The attorneys want to tweak the provision to include people who have been ordered civilly committed by a court, even when the order has been stayed.

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