Having just gone through yet another year of deer hunting, there have been a number of questions with regard to convicted felons possessing weapons. To begin, the law is pretty clear on this — anyone who has been convicted of a felony may not possess a firearm in the state of Wisconsin, outside of some very limited exceptions, including military service and work as a peace officer.
This means that a convicted felon may not hunt with a rifle ever in his lifetime — at least while the felony remains on his record.
The law prohibiting felons from possessing firearms was enacted in 1981. According to the courts, the law was enacted to protect public safety by regulating firearms. By the letter of the law, someone who was acquitted of a felony by reason of mental disease or defect would also be prohibited from possessing any firearm during the period of his disability. Based upon these understandings, the courts have upheld the prohibition — even on felons whose only felony was committed prior to 1981.
Only where the felon has shown an imminent, impending and unlawful threat of death or great bodily harm relating to his possession of the firearm have the courts recognized any exception other than those specifically listed in the statute. And even that privilege is extremely limited.
To be clear, statutes such as this can be very definition intensive. First, when is the person “possessing” a firearm? Second, what, exactly, constitutes a firearm? In this case, the definitions have been very sweeping and generally disfavor any possession of anything resembling a firearm by a felon.
A person is said to be in possession of a firearm if he knowingly has any control over a firearm for any minimal length of time. If, for example, someone convicted of a felony is at home and there are firearms in the house that the person knows about, he could be convicted of possessing a firearm. If a convicted felon joins a hunting party and even one gun is left unlocked in the lodge with him, the felon could be charged with possession. If he hands a firearm from one person to another — unloaded, uncased or disassembled — he could be charged with possession.
When courts consider the definition of “firearm,” things again get tricky. By statutory definition, a firearm is considered any “weapon that acts by force of gunpowder.” While that seems clear, it gets to be tricky when discussing dissembled weapons or weapons that are incapable of firing. Both, under the courts, have been considered firearms and subject felons to criminal charges for possession. Even collectors firearms that are capable of being repaired and fired are included in the ban.
The long and short of it is that a felon is in true jeopardy of criminal charges if he is even around firearms or anything that could become a firearm. Which means any participation in a hunting trip (other than bow-hunting) is likely out of the question. It also means that families of felons may have limitations on their ability to have and keep weapons, just to protect the felon from additional criminal charges.
In Wisconsin, we have a number of ways for someone to catch a felony conviction. Felonies exist for failure to report to jail, possession of controlled substances, failure to pay child support, even adultery. Although these are generally more serious crimes — all punishable by the possibility of more than one year in jail — they are surprisingly frequent. Ozaukee County, for example, had issued 238 felony charges this year as of Friday. Washington County has charged double that many and Sheboygan, nearly triple.
Given the strong tradition of deer hunting in this state, this time of year frequently brings questions as to the proper course to restore the civil right to carry firearms — now recognized in more contexts in Wisconsin than mere hunting (thanks to the ).
The answer, unfortunately, is very limited. Effectively, the only way to remove the restriction on possessing firearms is to remove the felony. Removing any old or settled felony frequently involves an act of great mercy on the part of someone with the authority to do so. Either the prosecuting authority must agree to reopen and amend the case to something other than a felony, or the felony must be removed through a governor's pardon. Both are very difficult roads that are usually met with failure — even if the felon has had no further criminal conduct in several decades.
The law, as it stands, limits felons' ability to hunt, and families of felons should be very aware of the possibility that their conduct could, hypothetically, get their convicted relatives in further trouble. At this time there is very little recourse. However, anyone with a conviction can find information on gubernatorial pardons at the Governor's website.