In the past eight years, at least 114 Minnesotans have persuaded a judge that they could once again be trusted with a gun, despite past convictions of sex offenses, assaults, drug dealing and other crimes.
In most cases, they have since stayed out of trouble. Only one whose rights were restored has been convicted of a gun-related crime in the state, a Star Tribune analysis of court records has found.
State Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, has introduced a bill to make it more difficult for felons to win back their firearms rights. Despite the low rate of offenses by those with restored gun rights, Goodwin said she’ll continue to push the bill because she believes it could help prevent deaths in the state.
She cited the shooting of three cops in 2001 by a convicted murderer whose gun rights had been restored.
“We need more protections just in case,” she said. “I’m glad that you couldn’t find any, but I’m hoping that lasts.”
Joseph Olson, a Hamline University law professor and president of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, said the lack of gun crimes shows the system works.
“We shouldn’t mess with it,” he said.
Last month, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the state’s system of gun rights restoration. The high court rejected an appeal by a felon whose effort to get his gun rights back was blocked by a judge.
“The Second Amendment right is not unlimited and the scope of the right is subject to certain presumptively lawful exceptions,” the court wrote.
Minnesotans who have successfully gotten their firearms rights back had initially been convicted of a wide range of crimes, including 21 for drug use, sales or manufacturing; 17 for assaults; 14 for sex crimes and three for vehicular homicide.
But rarely have they re-offended. In three cases, felons who were able to get their gun rights back were convicted of drunken driving. That includes a St. Paul man who lost his gun rights due to a restraining order being filed against him by his wife. After he got his rights back, he was convicted twice of driving while intoxicated, once for giving an officer a false name and once for theft of public assistance.
In Marshall County, a man was convicted of domestic abuse-violating an order for protection, after he sent his ex-wife a hostile text message.
In the only gun-related crime, 25-year-old Chance Skorczewski of Shakopee was convicted in 2011 of carrying-under-the influence and fifth-degree assault.
Skorczewski initially lost his gun rights after he was convicted of third-degree burglary in 2007; charging records show that he broke into a garage and stole two flashlights and a box of potato chips. He successfully petitioned to have his gun rights restored in 2008.
Skorczewski said he had his gun on him one night in July 2011 when he was drinking at a bonfire and got into a fight with a friend. After he left, he was picked up by police and charged with the two counts.
He said that he still has the right to buy a weapon but that he lost his permit to carry after the bonfire incident, although he’ll seek to get that reinstated once he’s off probation this month.
“Personal protection is always my key,” he said. “When I got my permit to carry, either you carry it or you don’t. You don’t pick and choose the days. You’re going to kick yourself when you’re in the bank that one time and someone decides to hold it up and you don’t have it on you.”
For some, for hunting
For others, getting their firearms back was about being able to hunt again. Jacob Jeppesen, 29, got his rights restored last year in Dakota County after being convicted of first-degree burglary and third-degree assault in 2005.
Jeppesen said the restoration process was expensive, because he had to hire an attorney, but not difficult.
“It was a one-day deal,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be as smooth as it was.”
In some cases, Minnesotans were able to get their gun rights back despite the objection of law enforcement or their victims. In 2007, 65-year-old Richard John Johnson of New Ulm was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault after he threatened to shoot his brother and his wife, court records show.
Two years later, he successfully had his gun rights restored, despite the objection from the two people he had threatened.
The judge in the case, John Rodenberg, wrote that he restored the rights because the probation period and restraining order had passed.
“Whether the defendant’s use or possession of firearms is otherwise restricted is not before the court,” Rodenberg wrote.
Johnson could not be reached for comment.
If passed, Goodwin’s bill would force felons convicted of major offenses to wait 10 years before they could petition a judge for firearms restoration. Others would have to wait five. Petitions would have to be made where the felon was convicted and would require a higher standard of proof before the right is restored.
Under the current system, a restoration is granted if a judge finds the petitioner shows “good cause.”
‘Just want clarity’
Greg Kryzer, an assistant Wright County attorney, thinks that part of the law is too vague.
In 2011 he appealed the restoration granted to a St. Michael man who was convicted twice in 2002 of manufacturing methamphetamines. Kryzer said he believed the man could be a threat if he were able to acquire firearms. The court ruled that the man “poses little threat to public safety” because he had been able to demonstrate his rehabilitation.
“We just want some clarity,” Kryzer said.
Goodwin said the impetus for the bill came from a July 2001 incident in Columbia Heights when David Byrne shot three police officers. Byrne had his gun rights restored in 1987, 21 years after he was convicted of using a shotgun to kill his ex-wife and a friend in Fridley.
Byrne first targeted officer Michael McGee, because the two knew each other from the neighborhood, and Byrne thought McGee was harassing him. McGee was walking home from work when Byrne shot him in the back with a shotgun. Byrne then fetched a rifle and a submachine gun from his home and shot two other officers.
McGee, who is now retired, said he’s had five surgeries since the shooting, the last one in 2010. He said that he supports Goodwin’s bill but that he doesn’t believe it would have prevented what happened to him almost 13 years ago, noting the length of time it took Byrne to get his rights back.
Asked what could have prevented the shooting, McGee responded, “If he would have never known me. If he would have never lived in Columbia Heights.”