BARTOW – In a state where gun rights are strongly protected, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office is taking aim at a particular group and hoping to remove any guns they might have in their homes – even if the gun owner feels the weapon is needed to protect himself and his family.
“Whether you think you need it for protection or not, it doesn’t matter, and we have no sympathy for you,” said Scott H. Wilder, director of communications for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
The group in question, though, may not draw much sympathy from the public: convicted felons, who face stiff penalties if they’re caught in possession of any weapons. The only exception is when the felon has had his rights restored by the convicting state.
“That’s just the punishment of our system,” Wilder said. “Had you not committed that original criminal offense, you could own that gun and protect your family. If you haven’t had your rights restored, that’s life.”
Federal law prohibits anyone convicted of a felony from ever possessing any firearm or ammunition. It specifically applies to anyone convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment.
Even after they’re released from jail, the felon is banned from owning a firearm either inside or outside of their home, and the federal punishment can run as high as 10 years in prison.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office is trying to crack down on felons who own or use guns, and is working with Heartland Crimestoppers, Inc., on a new program that rewards anonymous callers who alert law enforcement to anyone with an illegally possessed firearm. Citizens are encouraged to turn in felons with guns, which Wilder said is a reoccurring problem for the sheriff’s office.
“We run across it all the time,” he said. “The one that provided the impetus for this was a guy who shot and seriously injured two of our deputies. He was a convicted felon, and he shouldn’t have been in possession of this weapon.”
Anyone with a tip to provide can call Heartland Crimestoppers at 800-226-TIPS (8477) and report a person known to be illegally possessing a gun.
If an arrest is made and a gun gets recovered from the information that was provided, the tipster will be eligible for a $500 reward.
All calls remain confidential and no one at the sheriff’s office will ask a caller for their name or phone number. Callers are not required to testify in court on these cases.
“We know that guns don’t commit violent crimes, people commit violent crimes,” Judd said. “And we know that there are plenty of folks out there who know who the bad guys are in their area. They know if they have guns or not.
“Give us an anonymous call, tell us who and where they are,” Judd added. “Give us as much information as you can, and we will investigate. If we find someone illegally possessing a gun, we will arrest them and give the person who gave us the information $500 cash. It’s that simple. We want convicted felons who illegally possess guns off the streets.”
Wilder said this program was modeled after gun buyback programs that have been used by other county sheriff’s offices. In those instances, people who turned in their guns to the sheriff’s office – no questions asked – got vouchers for food, gasoline or other goods in exchange.
In this case, Wilder said, they’re offering a cash reward for tips.
“This is sort of a play off that type of program,” he said. “We don’t believe that guns in and of themselves are the bad thing. Guns can be used to defend lawful people and protect your property and yourself.”
The goal here is to crack down on felons alone, he added.
“If you know of a felon in possession of a gun, or a gun that has had its serial numbers filed off, those are the ones we want to know about,” Wilder said.
It doesn’t matter if the convicted felon isn’t using the gun to commit crimes, Wilder added.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re going to use that gun to rob a bank or not,” he said. “The mere possession of it as a felon is what’s illegal, even if they’re not using that gun to commit crimes. It’s a fairly steep penalty, and I know the court system takes it very seriously. It’s a big deal.”
Since the program was first announced on Oct. 28, it’s led to one arrest, Wilder said.
“We’ve had a number of tips, and we’ve already paid one out,” he said. “One of the tips led to us making an arrest for things other than simply owning an illegal gun.”
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