ORLANDO — When Mark Schmidter got put in the Orange County Jail on a contempt of court charge, one of the first things he did was arrange to get rid of the guns he owns at his home.
“I already had them taken out of my house,” Schmidter said. “I’m not taking a chance on them.”
The reason he got rid of the guns wasn’t a fear that someone might break into his home and steal his firearms while he was in jail, then use them in the commission of a crime. Schmidter was worried that if he got out jail — and he was released on bail at 9:30 Friday night — he could end up back in state or federal prison if he ever gets caught owning those guns.
Schmidter was arrested on June 29 in front of the Orange County Courthouse, and charged with violating a judge’s administrative order not to distribute political flyers to prospective jurors on the grounds that it could amount to jury tampering. Schmidter did it anyway, got arrested, and was charged with “indirect criminal contempt” — a form of contempt of court. What he didn’t realize at the time was that this charge isn’t a misdemeanor, but a third degree felony.
And having been found guilty by Judge Belvin Perry of the charge, and sentenced to five months in county jail, Schmidter is now a convicted felon. Upon release from jail, convicted felons lose several civil rights, including the right to vote, serve on a jury, hold an occupational license, serve in the military — and own any firearms.
Schmidter said he was aware of the law, which is why he arranged to have the guns removed from his home before he got released on bail pending his appeal of the conviction.
Schmidter said he doesn’t particularly care about losing his right to own the firearms, which he said were a gift given to him in lieu of payment for some work done, and which he didn’t used to begin with.
“I never go shoot on the range or go hunting,” he said. “I’m not like that.”
What does bother him is that he had a non-violent offense — handing out flyers informing jurors of their right to jury nullification — that left him forever branded as a convicted felon. The fact that he was simply exercising his right to political free speech, he said, landed him in this dilemma.
“I’m a political prisoner, that’s what I am,” he said.
A felony conviction strips individuals of certain civil rights, including the right to purchase or own a firearm. The law dates back to the Gun Control Act of 1968, passed by Congress in the same year that U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated.
If the felon’s conviction came under a state court, that person can ask to have their civil rights restored at the state level, although if the conviction involves certain violent crimes, it can’t be adjudicated by the state. If it involves a non-violent offense, the right to own a firearm could be restored. Convicted felons are also not allowed to take gun safety courses.
Florida is one of several states that have a waiting period before felons released from prison can have their civil rights restored. The state’s former governor, Charlie Crist, had instituted new rules in 2007 that allowed non-violent offenders to apply for the automatic restoration of their civil rights upon the completion of their prison sentence. But earlier this year, non-violent offenders got handed a longer waiting period after Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, sitting as Florida’s Executive Clemency Board, voted to require nonviolent felons who have completed their sentence, finished probation and made full restitution to undergo a five-year waiting period, then begin an application process for restoration of rights.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 defines a prohibited person as one who has been convicted or is under indictment for a term exceeding one year, so it’s not clear if the full prohibitions would apply to Schmidter with his sentence of 151 days in jail.
Schmidter said if it does apply to him, it could be a major risk to him in the future — but not simply because he can’t keep his firearms. He noted that he could be driving in a car with someone who keeps a gun in the vehicle. If they got stopped and law enforcement found the weapon, Schmidter could be charged for that.
“I know people who carry guns under their seats, and I don’t even know it’s there,” he said.
Local law enforcement continues to take seriously the issue of felons owning guns. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office is trying to crack down on them by working with Heartland Crimestoppers, Inc., on a 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 by calling Heartland Crimestoppers at 800-226-TIPS (8477).
The Osceola County Sheriff’s Office is taking a different approach, hosting a Gas for Guns program on Friday, Aug. 19 at Iglesia Cristo Misionera El Tabernaculo Church in Kissimmee. The program encourages citizens to bring in unwanted guns, which the sheriff’s office believes can help reduce the chance of guns falling into the wrong hands. In return, those who trade in their guns get a $50 gas cards.
“The goal is to encourage citizens to turn in unwanted firearms to remove them from our community,” said Osceola Sheriff Bob Hansell.
The church is at 2490 Boggy Creek Road in Kissimmee, and Gas for Guns will be held from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. This event is completely anonymous, and no questions will be asked of anyone who shows up, including whether they’re a convicted felon.
All firearms brought to the event should be in a plastic bag, unloaded and safely secured, the sheriff’s office noted.
In previous years, the Sheriff’s Office has collected more than 336 weapons from programs like this one.
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