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Felons hunting with guns slip past state law

By Andy Boyle

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

At least 850 felons, including more than 100 violent criminals, illegally used firearms to hunt in Arkansas during the past year — and state officials say they have no way to stop that from happening.

No state agency, including the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, runs a background check on people applying for a hunting license or checking hunted game. No federal or local agencies run checks, either.

Commission officials and some state legislators have said it’d be nearly impossible to do a background check on everybody who applies for a hunting license in a state where 330,000 hunting licenses are issued each year. The manpower just isn’t there, they added, and there’s no procedure in place to even make it possible.

But others said the state should consider changing the way it issues hunting licenses, or even forbid felons to hunt.

About 4,800 felons bought hunting licenses in Arkansas during the 2007-08 hunting season, according to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette analysis of state hunting license and crime record data. Of those, about 950 were felons convicted of violent crimes, including murder, rape, drug trafficking and robbery.

An analysis by the Democrat-Gazette in 2000 found that roughly 3,000 felons — including 1,200 violent felons — had bought hunting licenses during an 18-month period. That analysis did not look at game tags.

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It’s not illegal for a felon to obtain a hunting license in Arkansas, but Arkansas Code Annotated 5-73-103 makes it illegal for a felon to be in possession of a firearm unless the governor restores that right.

At least 859 felons turned in game tags disclosing that they killed their prey with a muzzleloader or a modern gun, both of which are illegal for a felon to possess. Roughly 300 felons indicated on the game tags they used bows to hunt their game, which is legal. A game tag is filled out at game inspection stations by a licensee or state official saying where, when and how the hunter killed the animal.

The analysis of 2007 data showed only six felons whose right to possess firearms had been restored turned in game tags stating they used a firearm.

Arkansas, like 45 other states, doesn’t ask for background information from hunting-license applicants, run background checks or require a specific permit to hunt with a gun. Only four states — Maine, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Illinois — have restrictions that prevent some felons from hunting or require both a hunting license and a firearms license to hunt.

Keith Stephens, a spokesman for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said the agency, which focuses on enforcing game laws, faces a obstacle to insuring that felons don’t use guns to hunt in the state.

Arkansas Code Annotated 12-12-212 makes it a class D felony to run someone’s name through the state’s criminal database without probable cause. Stephens said that means the commission can’t arbitrarily run hunters’ names through the state’s criminal database, whether it’s when they receive an application or out in the field.

The Arkansas Criminal Information Center, which does the database searches, is allowed to use the system only for official criminal justice purposes, said Bill Clinton, the agency’s operations administrator. Federal laws say that the national criminal database can’t be checked for licensing purposes, he said.

“I don’t think they can say, ‘OK, I’m here to buy a hunting license’ and then run your criminal history,” he said.

But if an agency has reason to believe that a hunter is a felon in possession of a firearm, Clinton said, the system can be used to run a background check.

Stephens said it would also be costly and time-consuming to run a background check on applicants through other means.

After compiling data from state, county and federal courts, companies that do background checks for employers charge as little as $15 per person, or sometimes a flat monthly fee for all checks. Because the state charges $25 for a resident sportsman’s license, a private vendor background check would eat into the revenue the Game and Fish Commission collects from licenses, money that is put into the Game Protection Fund, the commission’s general operating fund.

In addition to that, the game inspection stations don’t have a system in place that could instantly run a background check on someone bringing in killed game. The commission would find out if a felon had hunted with a gun months later, only after game tags have been picked up from individual checking stations and scanned into a computer system in Little Rock, said Maj. Robert Stout, the assistant chief of the Game and Fish Commission’s enforcement division.

“What is really an interesting question is why would these people do this?” Stephens said. “Why would you be a felon and check a deer that you killed with a gun when you probably know that you’re not supposed to be in possession of a weapon?”

NO FLAGS IN PLACE

Mark A. Mann has hunted since he was a kid. The 46-yearold North Little Rock native said he now uses a .50-caliber muzzleloader to hunt his game.

“I hunt as often as I can, until I fill all of my tags,” he said.

Mann is the kind of hunter who slips under law enforcement’s radar. He’s a convicted felon, and he thinks he has the right to hunt with his muzzleloader.

He doesn’t.

On Oct. 13, Mann paid $25 for a resident sportsman’s license, according to the state’s hunting license database. One month later, he killed a deer in the Bayou Meto wildlife management area in Jefferson and Arkansas counties, southeast of Pulaski County. Mann then checked the deer at a Pulaski County checking station, where an official checked his method of killing the game as “modern gun” on his game tag.

According to Little Rock court records, Mann was convicted in 1989 of felony theft of property after stealing $2,500 worth of items from a J.C. Penney. He was put on probation for five years, had to pay a $400 fine and pay the store restitution.

Then in 1994 he plead guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and was put on five years probation, paid a $300 fine and was ordered to perform 160 hours of community service. The records didn’t indicate what type of firearm was used. Since then, records show Mann hasn’t been in Little Rock court.

Despite the game tag saying he used a modern gun, Mann said he hunts with a muzzleloader and that it’s legal. Mann said he was told by lawyers during his last court experience that a muzzleloader wasn’t a firearm.

“In Arkansas, that’s considered a primitive weapon,” he said.

No, it’s not, said Stout with the agency’s enforcement division. The state considers a muzzleloader a firearm, so it’s illegal for a felons to be in possession of one unless their firearm rights have been restored, which Mann’s haven’t.

“I don’t understand why these felons would be doing this if they knew they could go to prison,” Stout said.

Mann isn’t the only felon in Pulaski County who used a firearm to hunt, according to the analysis. North Little Rock had six others, and Little Rock had 45, which is the most in the state.

Those numbers are troubling to Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley.

“It sounds like somebody’s not doing a good job at the enforcement level,” he said.

While the privacy rights of individuals are important, he said, “You’d think there could be some type of enforcement mechanism to catch these guys.”

There isn’t.

Both the Pulaski County sheriff’s office and the Little Rock Police Department don’t have programs in place to find felons in possession of weapons.

“If we run across them on the street, then we check them,” said Lt. Terry Hastings, Little Rock Police spokesman. “Otherwise, it’s not something we actively try and find.”

Other cities outside of central Arkansas also had felon hunters who indicated they used guns. Jonesboro had 25; Fayetteville had 20. Texarkana and El Dorado each had 18.

The state’s Department of Community Corrections, which is in charge of looking after parolees, sometimes finds firearms at the residences of those under its charge, said Rhonda Sharp, a department spokesman.

OTHER STATES, OTHER RULES

While nearly every state bars felons from possessing guns, only a few stop them from hunting. Two states, both in New England, bar felons from hunting with a firearm, and a few others have restrictions.

In Maine, convicted felons cannot buy or possess a firearms hunting license unless they have a permit to carry a firearm, though they can obtain a bow license. The state requires a background check to receive the firearm permit.

Anyone applying for a hunting license in Maine must disclose on the application if he is a felon. Lying about it is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail.

It is against the law in Rhode Island for a person convicted of a violent felony to buy or possess a hunting license. Lying on the application is a misdemeanor carrying a penalty of up to 90 days in jail.

Massachusetts and Illinois both require firearm licenses in order to buy a firearm hunting license.

In Arkansas, the only way a felon hunting with a firearm is likely to get in trouble is if a game officer runs his background through the state criminal database, said Stout from the Game and Fish Commission. To do that, the officer would need a reason. In most cases, officers just check to see if someone is hunting with a valid weapon and license.

Perhaps that needs to change, said state Rep. Benny Petrus, DStuttgart. He’s one of two chairmen of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Oversight Committee, and he said felons illegally hunting is something the group should discuss.

“Quite frankly, it’s something I never thought about,” he said. “But it’s something that does need to have someone look in to it, because I’m sure neither the Legislature or the Game and Fish Commission want felons out there unlawfully carrying guns.”

Jegley, the Pulaski County prosecutor, said perhaps the state should look into having restricted licenses for felons.

Petrus said that’s also something the committee could look into and perhaps draft some legislation.

Some hunting-rights advocates hope any new legislation wouldn’t affect legal hunters.

If the state changes the way hunting licenses are issued, that would be putting an extra burden on most of the hunters, said Rick Story, a senior vice president of the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, a national hunting-rights advocacy group.

“If I were an Arkansas sportsman who did things by the law and wasn’t a convicted felon, and maybe a good church-going, all-American guy or lady and somebody told me that there are 850 people who might be breaking the law and I get to pay the price for it, I don’t think I’d like that very much,” he said.

Instead, he said law enforcement agencies should find felons through an analysis similar to the Democrat-Gazette’s. That way you’re not making the law-abiding hunter pay for it, he said.

Petrus said he would prefer that any change affect the “bad guys, not the good.”

“They say no harm no foul, but that’s not the case here,” he said. “They’re actually breaking the law and telling the state they’re doing so, and that shouldn’t be happening.”