2A advocates, NAACP call on prosecutor to drop felon-in-possession charges against man who turned in gun

(AP Photo/Marina Riker, File)

Steven Cooper knows that as a convicted felon he’s not allowed to possess a firearm or ammunition, so when the 31-year-old discovered a gun in the back of an SUV that his brother had given him he did what he thought was the right thing; he called his probation officer to report the gun and handed it over once the officer showed up at his apartment building.

Instead of being praised for his honesty, however, Cooper ended up in handcuffs on July 14th last year, and prosecutors in Duluth, Minnesota filed charges for his temporary and accidental possession. If convicted, Cooper could end up serving a five-year prison sentence, but local activists are now calling on the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office to drop the charges, arguing that it sends the wrong message to offenders and unfairly punishes Cooper for acting responsibly.

The Duluth NAACP is calling on St. Louis County Attorney Kim Maki to drop the charges, alleging he’s being treated “unreasonably harshly” because he is Black.

Duluth NAACP President Classie Dudley said the charge sends a message to the community and to law enforcement working to keep guns off of streets.

“What this tells me is if you have an unregistered gun or if you are someone who has a gun that shouldn’t be in your possession, don’t turn it in,” she said.

In an unusual move, the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office released a lengthy statement about the case shortly after the news conference concluded.

The office stands by its charging decision based on initial evidence, the statement said, and with the investigation incomplete, it would be “premature to take action regarding the outcome of this case.”

“We remain open to whatever options are warranted when the investigation is completed. We will not, however, make legal decisions based upon community pressure or false and unfounded allegations of racism in charging decisions,” it said.

I don’t know if it’s racism driving the decision by prosecutors to move forward with the case, but even if there’s no racial animosity on the part of prosecutors the fact that the case hasn’t already been dropped is disturbing. As the MN Gun Owners Caucus pointed out in their own letter to the local prosecutor, based on all the available reporting to date it sounds like Cooper “took responsible steps to ensure that the firearm wasn’t a danger to the public” by wrapping it up in a sweatshirt and temporarily storing it in a secured area of the apartment building while he waited for his probation officer to arrive.

It’s absurd to charge Cooper with possession of a firearm by a prohibited person if he actually tried to turn the gun over to authorities as soon as he discovered it. The St. Louis County Attorney’s office may stand by their charging decision based on the initial evidence, but none of the evidence that’s come to light to date indicates that Cooper held on to the gun for longer than he had to, or that he used the gun in the commission of any sort of crime.

No one’s denying that Cooper’s committed some serious crimes in his life. He spent more than 13 years in prison after he was convicted of shooting two convenience store clerks when he was just 15-years old, and he’s admitted to struggling with drug abuse in the years since his incarceration ended; including the day before he allegedly discovered the gun in his brother’s Chevy Blazer.

The first few years of prison were rough, but Cooper said he eventually found hope and turned his life around. He earned an associates degree and certificates in welding, carpentry and architectural design.

It hasn’t been a smooth transition out of prison, however. Cooper has struggled with chemical dependency and was sent back to prison more than once for violating parole by using drugs. He hasn’t been charged with any new crimes apart from traffic violations, however.

The day before he found the gun, Cooper confessed to his parole officer that he was using drugs again. Cooper’s brother had recently overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl.

“It took a toll on me,” Cooper said. “Life kind of spiraled out of control then, which I’m not blaming anything, but I did end up relapsing.”

Cooper found the gun the night before his parole officer was scheduled to meet with him to deliver a restructured agreement for his probation for using drugs. He found it in a compartment in the back of the Chevy along with ammunition. The car wasn’t operational, and Cooper had been using it for storage until he could get the transmission fixed. He believes the gun belonged to his brother, who was also on parole and not legally allowed to possess a gun.

Cooper and his attorney, Joe Vaccaro, say charging him for turning the gun into law enforcement sends the wrong message to other felons who find firearms or ammunition in their possession.

“I could have easily thrown that thing in a river. I could have easily gave it to somebody … dumped it in the garbage,” Cooper said in an interview. “Here’s the difference from the person that I used to be in 2006 and right now.”

Cooper may have lost his right to keep and bear arms long ago, but his brief and incidental contact with a pistol shouldn’t result in him going back to prison if he was trying to do the right thing. I’m very curious to see what evidence the county attorney has to the contrary, and I can’t help but wonder why their investigation into an incident that occurred last July hasn’t already wrapped up. With Cooper’s preliminary hearing scheduled for next month, however, we won’t have too long to wait before prosecutors either show their hand or decide to drop the felon-in-possession charges.

Kudos to the MN Gun Owners Caucus for speaking out in defense of Cooper, as well as pointing out the idiocy of the decision to charge him even after the Department of Corrections declined to treat the incident as a violation of his probation. Steven Cooper may not be a poster child for the right to keep and bear arms, but gun owners and Second Amendment activists still need to stand up and speak out when we see an injustice being committed. Based on all of the evidence that’s been released so far, that’s exactly what the prosecutor of Steven Cooper looks like to me.