Violent offenders would have harder time regaining gun rights.
Felons who have served their time would find it much harder to regain the right to possess a firearm under the first of what is expected to be several gun bills proposed at the Legislature.
Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, wants those convicted of violent crimes to have to go before the state Board of Pardons before they are granted the legal right to own firearms.
Now, Goodwin said, "all they have to do is find a friendly judge, and they could have their rights to get the weapons restored."
The bill is just one in what could be a string of proposals that could upend Minnesota's liberal gun laws. With the national conversation about gun violence at the forefront and DFLers' takeover of the Legislature in place, supporters of stricter gun control believe the dynamic has changed.
"I think there's a sea change occurring," said Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, chairman of the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. He said he has heard from rural lawmakers recently -- many of whom have opposed any gun restrictions in the past -- who now say they are willing to consider changes.
Paymar plans to sponsor a measure that would require background checks for all Minnesota gun sales, including those at gun shows or between private parties, similar to the proposal from President Obama this week.
Other bills likely to come before the Legislature this session include a ban on so-called assault weapons and on high-capacity magazines; increased police presence in schools, and enhanced penalties when criminals are armed -- even if they don't use the weapon in the crime.
But supporters of gun rights have already signaled that no new gun restrictions will pass without a fight.
"I don't plan on giving an inch on anything except making it harder for bad guys to get guns," said Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center.
One of the most ardent gun rights supporters at the Capitol, Cornish believes that arming teachers and school employees would be the best deterrent for school shootings.
Cornish opposes Goodwin's proposal in part because it would impede offenders' integration back into society. Cornish said his grandfather spent time in prison for a property crime and, even in his prison diaries, wrote about his desire to hunt again.
Other supporters of gun rights say they are willing to consider Goodwin's proposal.
"I want sensible gun legislation that is going to make a difference. If there's a problem here, we should address it. If there's not a problem ... then I'm not sure that change is necessary," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a Cook DFLer who has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association in the past.
Gov. Mark Dayton's spokeswoman, Katharine Tinucci, said Dayton would watch the proposal as it moves toward his desk.
"The governor would be interested in looking at that proposal and hearing from advisers and stakeholders," she said. Dayton, who has owned guns in the past, received an "F" rating from the NRA when he ran in 2010.
The judge exception
Minnesota law forbids those convicted of violent crimes from transporting, receiving or possessing a firearm for life.
But it allows a big exception: Once violent criminals are out of prison, they can ask a judge to restore their gun rights.
"The court may grant the relief sought if the person shows good cause to do so and the person has been released from physical confinement," the law says.
That means a violent criminal could get back the right to own a gun well before regaining the right to vote. In Minnesota, felons are not allowed to vote until they have served all their time and finished their probation or parole.
Goodwin said she supports letting ex-convicts get their voting rights restored more quickly but would like to slow down the restoration of gun rights.
She would like only the Board of Pardons -- made up of the governor, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court and the attorney general -- to be able to grant violent offenders the right to have a firearm.
It was not immediately clear how many violent ex-felons have applied to have gun rights restored or how many restorations had been granted in Minnesota. Each time someone's gun rights are restored, that information is reported to the courts, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But officials said there is no readily available compendium of that information.
In 2011 a New York Times story found that during a seven-year period, at least 70 violent criminals received judicial permission to possess firearms in Minnesota. But the newspaper, which prominently featured Minnesota's permissive laws in an article on felons' gun rights, said it examined only "partial data from Minnesota's judicial branch."
Wright County Assistant Attorney Greg Kryzer said that in his two years with the office, he has seen five petitions from ex-felons seeking permission to carry firearms. He said that, theoretically, even a murderer could ask a judge to restore gun rights as soon as he or she was released from prison.
Kryzer, a lifelong hunter, supports Goodwin's efforts.
"I would say it is very easy for felons to get their firearm rights restored," he said.