There was a terrifying wrinkle to an awful story out of Fargo, North Dakota, earlier this month. In the days after Marcus Schumacher, a convicted felon who had served time for negligent homicide, murdered a local police officer on February 11, officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) made a startling announcement: Despite his criminal record, Schumacher was not prohibited from owning a firearm.
That’s because North Dakota automatically restores the gun rights of violent felons ten years after the completion of a prison sentence, no matter the crime they commit. Though standards vary, such a law is not unique: In more than half of states, according to Margaret C. Love, an attorney and expert on the restoration of rights to people with criminal convictions, there are statutes in place for felons to get their gun rights back.
The laws are the product of the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, which gave states the ability to exempt felons from the federal ban on owning guns. Fourteen states automatically restore at least some gun rights after a given period of time, without any petitioning required. North Dakota’s law is among the nation’s loosest — it not only guarantees the restoration of gun rights, but does so for violent crimes, whereas most others states with automatic restoration only do so for nonviolent offenses. In other parts of the country, like Ohio and Virginia, violent felons who wish to regain their rights must make a petition to local courts. In California, felons have to get a pardon from the governor.
Schumacher was convicted of negligent homicide in the 1988 death of 17-year-old Maynard Clauthier. (In 1994, he was released from prison, and by 2004, state law lifted his prohibition from buying firearms.) But it would not be his last run-in with the law: In 2012, Schumacher was charged with simple assault after he knocked his son to the ground and shoved his wife. He pleaded down to disorderly conduct, receiving a suspended 30-day sentence and a year of probation. If his plea was carefully worded so as not to mention that he used force against members of his family, the federal restriction of firearms rights for those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence would not have applied.
“I imagine that was what his lawyer had in mind, to avoid getting him prohibited,” Love says. (Jesse Nathan Lange, Schumacher’s attorney in that case, did not return a request for comment. The Trace has requested the transcript of Schumacher’s plea from the Cass County Court.)
On February 11, police responded to Schumacher’s house after his son called police to report a domestic disturbance involving a gun. Schumacher opened fire on police, fatally striking officer Jason Moszer. Schumacher died in the shootout, though it’s not yet known if he committed suicide or was shot by police.
In recent years, Congress has looked at other categories that prohibit gun ownership and encouraged states to make it easier for people who fall into those boxes to get out of them.
In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the NICS Improvement Amendment Act, which authorized more than a billion dollars in grants to states to improve the reporting of mental health records to the federal background check system. As part of a compromise necessary to get the bill through Congress, the funding was contingent on states creating “relief from disability” programs, which allow people to petition to have their gun rights restored.
That 2008 deal only applied for relief for those blocked from owning guns for mental health reasons, not felonies. A more recent bill would dramatically expedite the process. Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn introduced the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act last August following a string of high-profile mass shootings. Though it was praised by mental health professionals for portions that divert the mentally ill from the prison system, gun violence prevention groups raised concerns about one provision that immediately returned gun rights to people involuntarily committed to inpatient psychiatric hospitals as soon as their treatment ended, effectively gutting the ban on possession of guns by the dangerously mentally ill. The language of Cornyn’s bill assumes “that as soon as someone’s commitment order expires, they’re never going to hurt anyone,” Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia University psychiatry professor, told The Trace last summer. “[But] that isn’t how the mind works.”
Since 1992, the Department of Justice has been barred from processing petitions for gun-rights restorations from felons charged with federal crimes. As Cornyn has done for the mental illness prohibiter, so has another Republican lawmaker tried to do with that barrier to gun ownership by ex-federal convicts. Last June, Colorado Representative Ken Buck offered an amendment to a bill to fund the ATF that would lift the Justice Department’s decades-long ban on considering relief for felons.
In a floor speech, Buck told the tale of a man who had a felony record because he wrote a bad check during college and now couldn’t go hunting with his family. In public statements Buck said his rider would only allow non-violent felons to ask for restoration of their firearms rights. But the actual text of his amendment, only a single sentence, made no distinction between violent and nonviolent felons.
Though it didn’t make it into the final budget signed by President Barack Obama, Buck’s amendment passed the House in a voice vote, without any representatives raising concerns.
[Photo: Mitch Highman/mjoyphotography via AP, Pool]
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that violent class B misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct do not prohibit someone from owning firearms unless accompanied by a domestic violence restraining order. While the state of North Dakota does not restrict the firearms rights of people found guilty of violent class B misdemeanors, the federal government may impose such a prohibition for any misdemeanor regardless of class if the defendant is found to have used force.