North Dakota lawmakers look to beef up gun restoration laws

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Posted: Mar 04, 2016 5:42 PM
North Dakota lawmakers look to beef up gun restoration laws

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The fatal shooting of a Fargo police officer responding to a domestic disturbance has spurred efforts to clamp down on North Dakota's gun restoration laws, which researchers say are among the most forgiving in the nation.

The suspect in the Feb. 10 shooting death of Officer Jason Moszer was convicted of negligent homicide for shooting a Grand Forks man in 1988, but state laws did not disqualify Marcus Schumacher from having his gun rights restored.

A lawmaker who represents the district where the shooting took place is proposing a bill prohibiting violent felons from possessing firearms.

"This happened right in our neighborhood. I could hear the shots from my window," Republican Rep. Blair Thoreson said. "People are concerned about what's being done."

Federal law prohibits someone convicted of any federal felony from owning a gun. The restoration process for felons convicted of state crimes is varied, complicated and in some cases as specific as allowing the use of shotguns, rifles, muzzleloaders and antique weapons, but not handguns or concealed weapons.

Only a handful of states, including North Dakota, automatically restore gun rights — even to violent felons — after sufficient time has passed without requiring petitions or pardons, said Margaret C. Love, a Washington pardon lawyer who has researched restoration laws. She said felons in more than half the states can usually get back their gun licenses, although typically not for violent crimes.

"North Dakota laws are not typical, but they are also not unique," Love said. "New Mexico and Louisiana have schemes that are similar to North Dakota's, and there are a number of states that don't limit long guns at all for anyone."

Allison Anderman, an attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said North Dakota "is particularly weak" when it comes to restoration of gun rights.

Catherine Mortensen, a spokeswoman with the National Rifle Association, said at one point she was waiting to hear back from the group's lobbyist for comment and then declined to respond to further requests for an interview.

Bruce Quick, a prominent Fargo defense attorney, said any changes in the law should be specific about the types of crimes that would prevent a felon from legally getting a gun.

"I wouldn't necessarily be opposed to limiting it to murder convictions," Quick said. "... Just simply saying that with any felony of violence there is no restoration, I think is a bad idea."

North Dakota lawmakers aren't due to reconvene until 2017, and it's unclear what kind of reception they will give Thoreson's idea.

Democratic Sen. Mac Schneider, the Senate minority leader, said he does not "see any reasonable justification for allowing convicted violent felons to own firearms." Republican Rep. Al Carlson, the House majority leader, said he was open to discussing the proposal but wouldn't commit to supporting it until he can analyze the written bill.

"It always happens after an incident in which somebody decides there ought to be a bill to make it tougher," Carlson said. "We'll take a look at it. The door is wide open to make it better if it can be."

Homicides are rare in North Dakota, and Moszer was the first Fargo police officer to die in the line of duty in more than 130 years. The state is protective of its gun rights when it comes to hunting. It has abundant wildlife and a few years ago gave out more than 100,000 deer gun licenses.

North Dakota passed a law in the mid-1980s that prohibited anyone convicted of a felony involving violence or intimidation from owning a gun for 10 years after the completion of a sentence and probation. Other felonies and Class A misdemeanors involving crimes with firearms or dangerous weapons require a five-year waiting period after all time is served.

State lawmakers made another change in 2011 that allows convicted felons to petition judges to get their gun rights restored before the five- or 10-year waiting period has elapsed.

Police searching Schumacher's home found five guns, nearly 50 spent shell casings and other ammunition, including two unopened boxes with more than 400 rounds. A .243-caliber Winchester bolt-action rifle was found under Schumacher's body in the living room and a .22-caliber Ruger model firearm was found in the kitchen. Two other rifles and a shotgun were found in a gun cabinet in an upstairs bedroom.

Schumacher was sentenced to five years in prison in the shooting death of 17-year-old Maynard Clauthier in Grand Forks. Schumacher would have been eligible to have his gun rights restored in the early 2000s.