ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Possessing a firearm is one of the rights most felons lose, but can regain in Minnesota if they petition the courts and make a compelling argument to a judge.
State Senator Barbara Goodwin wants to make that harder, by turning those decisions over to the state pardons board.
"There are some favorable judges in this state," Sen. Goodwin, a Columbia Heights Democrat, told KARE.
"Most of them are common sense. But there's a few that have allowed people to get their gun rights back too easily. I'm especially concerned about the situation in Wright County."
Goodwin said she first became concerned about the issue back in 2001 when David J. Byrne, a released killer, opened fire on a Columbia Heights police officer. In the ensuing battle two Columbia Heights officers and one from Minneapolis were wounded.
Byrne's weapons, two semi-automatic handguns, as well as other rifles found in his home and vehicle, were all legal for him to possess. He had gone to prison for a double homicide in 1966, but was released in 1977.
Under Minnesota laws in place at the time Byrne's regained his right to possess firearms year years after he completed his sentence. His shootout with police did not take place until 24 years later.
"He was allowed to get his guns back, and he had 19 or 20 guns. He thought the police were after him, so he shot a policeman on his way home from work," Goodwin recalled.
The officers all survived their injuries. Byrne also survived gunshot wounds, but was later found mentally incompetent to stand trial. The 65-year-old suspect was committed to a secure mental health facility, according to Anoka County authorities who worked the case.
That incident led lawmakers to eventually do away with the 10-year rule and bar violent felons from owning guns for life. But legislators also created the exception that violent felons would ask the courts to restore their rights to possess guns.
The Minnesota Board of Pardons is comprised of Governor Mark Dayton, Attorney General Lori Swanson and Supreme Court Chief Justice Lori Gildea. The board meets twice each year to consider petitions for clemency.
One leading Second Amendment advocate believes the system works well the way it is.
"To raise the barriers for people to have their constitutional civil rights restored is a bad idea," Andrew Rothman of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance told KARE.
"Especially putting that into the hands of politicians, rather than experts on the law and criminal behavior, we would oppose."
He said many people make mistakes in their youth, or while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. The current law is designed to provide those offenders a second chance at gun ownership, once they've paid their debt to society and turn themselves around.
"These are people that we are trusting to be on our streets, to be on our roads and to walking among us everywhere we go," Rothman asserted.
"If we don't have them behind bars, if we don't have them under any sort of supervision, it's really hard to deprive them of some civil rights."
It's difficult to know how many of these cases would have to be decided by the state pardons board, if Sen. Goodwin's bill were to pass and become law.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension doesn't track how many released felons petition the courts for restoration of gun ownership, or how often judges restore those rights.
The courts do report that information, so that the BCA can change the criminal history database to reflect that person no longer is barred from possession.
Goodwin's measure would also require that victims and prosecutors be notified when released felons seek to have their gun possession rights restored.
"Right now when somebody gets their gun rights restored, they don't have to tell anybody," Goodwin said.
"The county attorney doesn't have to know. The local police don't have to know."
Rothman said his group would have no problem supporting notification to affected parties, but still believes it's a decision best left the court system where the original crimes were prosecuted.
Read Goodwin's bills on gun possession -
Senate File 46 and Senate File 64.
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