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Felons still getting hunting tags

By MATT GOURAS - Associated Press Writer - 01/28/06

HELENA - Hundreds of felons on parole or probation who are barred from having guns are getting hunting licenses in Montana with no questions asked, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Montana may not be alone. While nearly all states ban felons from possessing guns, only a handful have specific laws prohibiting them from receiving hunting permits, and even fewer have any means of checking to see if applicants are banned from hunting or carrying a firearm.

‘‘Our license dealers have no way of checking,’’ said Lt. Rich Mann, with the enforcement program for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. ‘‘If someone wants to play with the system and beat you at it, they will.’’

The AP examination of Montana hunting and corrections records indicates at least 660 felons on parole or probation received tags in the past year that would allow them to hunt with rifles or shotguns.

The licenses don’t specifically require the use of firearms, and state officials note that many of the hunters could legally be using other weapons, such as bows. Several of those contacted by the AP said they hunted legally with bows while on probation.

The findings are based on a comparison of unique first, middle and last names, along with other identifiable information, that appeared in both databases. Comparisons by birth dates and Social Security numbers, which would prove more conclusive, were not possible because of restrictions on the release of such information. The AP threw out 160 names because they were either too common or appeared to be duplicated in the hunting database.

A state probation official said the findings likely would prompt the state to consider its own similar records search to see if parolees are violating terms of their release and crack down on those who are.

‘‘Obviously that’s a big concern, and it makes me want to look into each of these cases,’’ said Ron Alsbury, Montana probation and parole bureau chief.

Alsbury said state probation officers always warn those with felony convictions who are being paroled or put on probation that they are forbidden to handle guns. Most, however, are not restricted from using other weapons to hunt.

Jason Beaudoin of Frenchtown, who is on probation for a 2002 conviction for assault with a deadly weapon, got a series of hunting tags last year, but said he used only a bow and arrow when he to took to the field.

‘‘I know I can’t own a firearm or be in possession of one. They made that very clear ... and I agree with the policy,’’ Beaudoin said. But probation officials also made it clear the restriction didn’t extend to the use of bows, he said.

‘‘There are plenty of ways people can hunt even though they are barred from using conventional weapons,’’ added Gary S. Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association. ‘‘My guess is that there are a lot of them that are being perfectly decent citizens.’’

The problem is, no one knows for certain.

Some states, including Montana, check for past hunting violations as a routine part of a hunting license application, but don’t run spot checks to see if convicted felons are among those applying for licenses or if they are planning to use firearms.

‘‘The result in Idaho is that you could theoretically be a convicted cannibal and still have a hunting license,’’ said Ed Mitchell, a spokesman for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Boise. ‘‘But if you are a convicted cannibal, you cannot legally own a bent BB gun in the state of Idaho.’’

In North Dakota, officials even check to make sure hunters aren’t delinquent on their child support, and deny permits to those who are. But they can’t check for felonies.

Colorado, like most states, relies on its state law banning felons from possessing guns to discourage them from applying for hunting licenses.

‘‘In other words, they can buy the hunting license but they cannot legally be out in the field hunting’’ with a firearm, said Bob Thompson, assistant chief of law enforcement for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

He said that every year state game wardens find someone with a felony conviction hunting with a firearm and a legally obtained hunting license. Florida officials said they’ve even had a game officer killed by a felon who was hunting with a gun.

Many state authorities say it simply would be too difficult to check if felons are getting hunting tags.

‘‘We have no way of knowing if they were a convicted felon, or whether they were telling the truth if they said they weren’t one,’’ said Elaine Makatura, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The AP analyzed information from 268,254 Montana resident hunting license holders from the past year and 8,732 people under the supervision of the Department of Corrections. Matches were narrowed down to those holding tags allowing guns to be used.

The AP review found that roughly 8 percent of those on parole or probation with the state had obtained such licenses in the past year.

Some examples:

n A Stevensville man on probation for shooting a man in the neck during an argument holds deer, elk, migratory bird, upland bird and antelope tags.

n A Butte man, on probation for pointing a rifle at a woman, has a deer tag.

Efforts to reach them by phone were unsuccessful. Many hunters with felony convictions had no listed phone numbers, while others did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

In some rare cases the state even automatically gave hunting licenses to felons.

One convicted felon contacted by the AP, Larry Pettijohn, wasn’t aware he held a bird hunting license. The state gave him the license for free because he qualified for it as a senior citizen who had purchased a state conservation license, the base permit for both hunters and anglers.

‘‘All I ever do is fish,’’ said Pettijohn of Missoula, on parole for felony drunken driving and being a persistent felon. ‘‘I don’t have a gun. Not allowed to.’’

One case made national news late last year when one of the hunters with a prized tag for Montana’s limited and controversial bison hunt turned out to be on parole or probation for a felony. He gave up his hunting tags before the season started.

Montana has looser gun laws for felons than some other states. Some states have lifetime gun bans for felons. Others require felons to petition a judge or the governor for restoration of gun rights. In Montana, gun rights are automatically restored to most felons with state convictions once they complete their sentences.

Alsbury said his agency did a spot check of its records about five years ago to see if violators had hunting tags. Officers confiscated some guns.

Alsbury said the AP investigation suggests it may be time for the state to search again.

‘‘With the technology we have now we should be routinely checking that,’’ he said.

On the Net:

Montana felons: http://app.mt.gov/conweb/ 

Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks: http://www.fwp.mt.gov 

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