Most days Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials receive multiple calls from felons inquiring if they are allowed to hunt in the state.
Nothing in the law prevents a felon from obtaining a Colorado hunting license. Unlike a gun purchase, no criminal background check is required.
And while law enforcement officials say it is pointless to buy the license, because it is illegal for felons to possess the firearms or archery weapons needed to bring down an animal, plenty of felons do.
"It happens all the stinkin' time," said Gary Ellis, owner of thecoloradohunter.com, the self-proclaimed go-to resource for Colorado hunting. In fact, the question tops the site's list of FAQs.
More than 300,000 hunting licenses are issued for big game alone in Colorado every year and, of those, an untraceable number go to felons. The occurrence cannot be quantified because hunting licensee information is not public record.
Yet every year, game wardens contact felons in possession of a gun, said Randy Hampton, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which oversees hunting.
Those interactions are in addition to the phone calls from both felons and whistle-blowers warning that a known felon is armed and hunting.
The apparent loophole exists despite the fact that otherwise non-felonious hunters are ineligible for hunting licenses if they are behind on child support payments. Meanwhile, convicted felons are denied other traditional privileges in Colorado and nationally, such as the ability to vote.
Hunting and gun advocates say the law should be changed to allow felons convicted of non-violent crimes to hunt.
"Are we having any problems?" said Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute, a Colorado libertarian-leaning think tank. "If there is not a problem in practice, don't legislators and law enforcement have more serious problems to worry about in real life?"
Currently, there are 685 hunting licenses suspended in Colorado for violations, Hampton said. An average of 200 are added each year to the list while a lesser number are removed, he said, but there is no way to compare that list to criminal records. But Hampton said it is common knowledge a number of revoked licenses are related to felons with guns.
"There is crossover," Hampton said "The propensity may not be for a felon to follow the law."
The wildlife department takes this issue seriously and investigates tips on those breaking the law, Hampton said.
In fact, an entry in the 2011 annual Wildlife Law Enforcement and Violation Report is titled "Felon and Family."
There are some states, such as Maine and Rhode Island, that prohibit felons from purchasing or possessing a hunting license.
Ellis said Colorado does not belong among those few but should readdress policy.
The law should differentiate between violent and non-violent felons when it comes to who can hunt, Ellis said.
"Some people just screwed up," he said. "No one is perfect."
Being someone who loves hunting and makes a living from it, Ellis said he would be "hard pressed" not to hunt if he were a felon, so he understands the enticement of being able to acquire a license.
But Ellis takes issue with some who justify their choice to break the law.
"We don't live in a society where you need to hunt to survive, so that is not a valid reason," he said.
"Some felons, like some other hunters, don't have enough money to put food on the table without hunting," he said.
It may not be an aspect of the gun debate currently, but this issue has been brought before legislators in the past.
In 1999, three months after Columbine, state Rep. and House Speaker Russ George, R-Rifle, was questioned about felons being allowed to hunt if their crime wasn't related to guns or violence. George said there wasn't much hope for the law to change or differentiate one felon from another.
"The debate is too heavily charged in the extremes to solve an inequity in the middle," George said. "The guy who made a mistake as a kid probably isn't way high up on anybody's radar screen."
Ryan Parker: 303-954-2409, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/ryanparkerdp