Joshua Fiedor knew he had a criminal record as a juvenile. But he says he never realized he was ineligible to own guns.
Then he received a letter from the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office last month informing him that he needed to surrender his firearms and his concealed pistol license.
“I was dumbfounded,” said the Yakima man, who said he had obtained his concealed-carry license shortly after establishing himself as a Washington resident. He moved here in 2000 and now owns an auto repair business.
However, the sheriff’s office had discovered information about Fiedor’s criminal record in California, including a burglary conviction from the 1980s. CarriAnn Ross, records supervisor for the sheriff’s office, said she could not discuss individual cases but did say the state and the FBI in recent years have pushed for more complete criminal history checks and that old convictions sometimes show up when permit applicants renew or replace their concealed-pistol cards, for example.
Fiedor said he was living with a poor foster family at the time. Walking home from school one day, he saw an open garage with a refrigerator inside. He checked for food, he said, but neighbors reported him for entering the building.
The cops caught up with him a few blocks later and sought burglary charges against him, he said.
That history would come back to haunt him, threatening to take away the guns he uses for recreation and home defense.
“We’re talking about something that occurred 32 years ago,” he said.
Attorneys who handle requests to restore firearm rights say Fiedor’s case is typical — somebody screwed up once, maybe more, as a juvenile or young adult and now wants to clean up their record so they can legally own guns.
“It’s a huge part of my life, so I was all over it,” Fiedor said.
Like Fiedor, attorneys say, many put themselves unknowingly at risk of going to jail or facing new charges over illegal possession of firearms.
“ ... They’re just taking a huge risk by not doing it,” said Yakima attorney Richard Gilliland about defendants who don’t pursue restoring their rights.
Gilliland’s law firm partner, Tim Hall, said someone might try to report a burglary in which a gun was stolen, for example, only to discover that he shouldn’t have owned the weapon.
“There are a lot of people out there who have guns and don’t have them legally,” Hall said.
Gilliland and Hall said they have seen an increase in inquiries this year from prospective clients who want to have their firearm rights restored.
They attribute the spike in part to concerns over what might happen to gun rights when the next president takes office, but said their most common client is probably someone who wants to be able to go hunting with his children.
The firm has filed about 40 restoration cases this year across the state — up from about 25 in 2015, Gilliland said.
Other attorneys in Yakima and Western Washington said they had not seen a recent spike in cases, but they agreed that inquiries tend to go up at certain times, such as the 2008 election or after mass shootings such as at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
“Whether we see a surge between November and December this year, we’ll just have to wait and see,” said Bellevue attorney David Newman, who estimated that firearm rights cases make up about a third of his practice.
Washington provides a fairly straightforward process for defendants to regain their firearm rights.
The law does not require character judgments — as long as the applicant qualifies, firearm rights must be restored, attorneys say.
The law is not without controversy.
Examples around the country, including in Washington, show that defendants have had their rights restored and then gone on to commit serious crimes, including murder.
Joe Brusic, the Yakima County prosecuting attorney, acknowledged that he has concerns about that prospect.
“It always makes me nervous, because at some point, they did lose that right, but we are following the law,” Brusic said.
His staff reviews each restoration case file with the court to ensure that the defendant meets the guidelines. Brusic said he has opposed some applications, but the majority have undergone review by attorneys and are eligible.
For the past several years, Yakima attorney Glen Warren has been trying to have the law changed to remove what he describes as a “legal oddity.”
Warren said it’s impossible for someone convicted of fourth-degree assault, a common domestic violence offense, to have their firearm rights restored under the current statute.
The distinction made by the federal government, which tracks firearms sales, has to do with whether defendants lose all their civil rights (in felonies), or just the right to possess firearms (as in a domestic violence misdemeanor case).
Working with Warren, Sen. Jim Honeyford of Yakima proposed legislation that would have prevented the state from counting misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor cases involving domestic violence against defendants in any future criminal prosecutions. Exceptions were proposed for cases where the defendant violated a no-contact order or was accused of stalking.
Honeyford testified that the change would be useful because the current law often prohibits people from working as a police officer or security guard.
The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence testified against the change, saying that domestic violence was a serious crime with many repeat offenders.
The measure did not make it out of committee in either 2013 or 2014.
Occasionally, prosecutors will review a criminal case involving someone apparently ineligible to possess firearms who would otherwise qualify to have their rights restored.
One example provided by Hall was a man hunting in Kittitas County who was able to prove to arresting deputies that he was legally allowed to have guns.
Deputy Yakima County prosecutor Troy Clements, who reviews many of the county’s cases involving firearm violations, said he sees perhaps one or two of those situations a year.
“It’s very infrequent,” he said.
Attorneys who handle the cases said Washington’s law provides a path for certain defendants to straighten out their lives and regain their right to possess firearms.
As Newman described it, the once-avid hunter who wants to look for deer with his kids is probably not a threat to the community.
“He’s not the guy we need to worry about,” Newman said.
“The guy we need to worry about will never come and ask to have his rights restored. He’ll just buy a gun on the street.”