Out of Sight: Gun Owners with Violent Pasts Obtain Permits

October 27, 2017 06:25 PM

Gun owners in Minnesota denied permits to carry firearms in public because of a history of violent behavior – including domestic abuse, assaultive and suicidal behavior – are able to obtain them anyway by appealing to judges in a secretive court process.

More than 350 gun owners have obtained permits to carry since 2010 after initially being denied by a county sheriff, according to records from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).


A KSTP investigation found four of every five permit denials were successfully appealed to a judge or sheriff last year.

The annual BCA report lists the reasons sheriffs have denied permits to carry. But the reasons for reversal are unknown because state law mandates court records in cases of appeal "must be sealed." 

This permit appeal is the only known court proceeding, other than juvenile records, automatically designated as confidential, according to several legal experts asked about the process.

"Risk to the public"

In Minnesota, gun owners must apply to their local sheriff's office for a permit to carry. Sheriffs are given discretion under the law to deny a permit if the applicant is considered a "danger to self or the public."

A confidential court document obtained by KSTP offers a rare look into why a sheriff denied a permit, then why he was overruled. 

ln 2013,  then-Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner used his discretion to deny the permit to carry application of Shane Olson, according to the sealed record.

Prior to applying for a permit to carry, Olson violated his probation for disorderly conduct convictions, was accused of impersonating a police officer and was barred from an elementary school because staff "did not feel safe," according to court records.

He was also ordered by a court to undergo anger management.

Olson declined numerous requests to comment for this story.

At the time, Sanner stated Olson "would create a risk to the public" if he were allowed to carry a firearm, adding, "we saw a very distinct pattern of behavior where the situation would get escalated . . . to a point where it became violent," according to the sealed document. 

However, that document shows then-District Judge Thomas P. Knapp overruled the sheriff, writing that Stearns County "failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence that there exists a substantial likelihood that the applicant is a danger to self or the public."

Since obtaining his permit to carry four years ago, Olson's law enforcement file has doubled in size. According to those public court records, he unlawfully fired a taser into a man's back, impersonated a police officer, was the subject of two restraining orders and was barred from the Wright County courthouse. 

In April, state regulators revoked his license to work as a bail bondsman, saying he had "provided false and misleading information" about his criminal background.

Judge Knapp and Sanner, both now retired, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Secretive Process

Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie says the secretive appeals process, which allows judges to overturn permit denials without leaving a public record, undermines accountability.

"When we see a judge overturn what we think is in the best interest of our public - that's disheartening," Leslie said. "I think it should be more transparent."

The state's permit-to-carry process has been closely studied by Protect Minnesota, a group working to end gun violence.

"We need to be able to ask the question, 'Why was that decision made?' and get an answer," said Nancy Nord Bence, Protect Minnesota's Executive Director.

"Maybe those answers would be strong . . . but we as a public should have a right to know that."

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, helped write the law more than a decade ago.

Cornish said "the gun groups and I have no interest in knowing" who has been denied or granted a permit to carry.

He said the law is meant to protect a gun owner's privacy, and guards against overreaching sheriffs.

"Sometimes the sheriffs are dragging up old cases that happened years ago, and they have no thought in their mind for a person to turn their life around," Cornish said.


Joe Augustine and Eric Chaloux

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