Much talk, little action in gun debate

Published 6:38 pm Sunday, June 30, 2013

On May 1, Minnesota House Speaker Paul Thissen, a leading gun control advocate who represents a Minneapolis district, decided there would be no legislation concerning firearms in 2013. The move ended a statewide debate on guns and halted a controversial bill on the subject.

Why? Was it the rallies for and against outside the Capitol? Was it the everlasting urban-rural fight this state endures? Was it that he wanted more time?

Thissen said he shelved the bill “primarily because it didn’t have the votes to pass in the form it was.”

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The issue of guns encompasses a wide spectrum, but the matters debated by lawmakers and pundits are a narrow segment of that spectrum. Yet it is this segment that stirs the most passion. Both sides know the court of public opinion weighs heavily in the chambers of elected officials, so they spin that debate in whichever way they can.

Following the Dec. 14 shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the debate over guns in America reached a climax. There hadn’t been this much momentum for gun control since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre or perhaps the 1981 attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. And lawmakers had recent memory of the 2011 assassination attempt on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.

Democrats proposed banning semi-automatic assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips, sought tighter laws to limit gun trafficking and wanted to expand background checks to include person-to-person sales.

But in the end, the measures stalled out, despite polls showing 80 and 90 percent of Americans in favor. The Senate filibuster rules requiring 60 votes halted the measure, with 54 yea and 46 nay.


‘It gets distilled down’

Opponents turn good intentions of fixing a loophole into a debate over the entire issue of gun control, said First District Congressman Tim Walz.

“What unfortunately happens is it becomes an either-or choice,” he said. “It gets distilled down. A very complex issue gets forced into an overly simplistic two-camp philosophy.”

He said ideology prevents lawmakers from dealing with the laws.

Many people who enjoy hunting and shooting sports and grew up around firearms safety were horrified by people committing high levels of violence, Walz said. America can maintain the Second Amendment rights and keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, he said. Closing a purchasing loophole doesn’t take away rights.

“We can have both things. We do it in many other aspects of our lives,” he said.

The public safety bill in Minnesota that Thissen shelved would have improved data sharing among the courts and departments of state government, with more information provided to the National Crime Information Center, better known as NCIC, the place law enforcement and retailers do background checks. The bill also would have increased the penalty on straw buyers, people who buy guns for prohibited buyers.


Differing views

Thissen said urban Minnesotans tend to see guns in a different manner than rural Minnesotans because of their life experiences. In the Twin Cities, people view guns as a means to commit many acts of violence. In Greater Minnesota, the tradition is hunting and firearms safety.

The debate in the House had devolved to being about forcing a vote for the sake of getting a record so that politicians would have campaign material. Thissen said he doesn’t ascribe to that kind of politics. Knowing the votes weren’t available, he exercised one of his powers as speaker.

The issue will be raised again in 2014, but whether the votes come depends largely on what happens in the interim. Will there be another Sandy Hook, Columbine or Red Lake Indian Reservation? And conversations the legislators have with constituents will influence the 2014 session, he said.

“I hope the real focus is on discussion of what can we do to reduce violence,” Thissen said. “There is a significant policy discussion to be had on what would actually work.”

He said he would like that discussion to be more productive than debating good versus evil.

“There has got to be a way to get the discussion to be a more meaningful one,” he said.

He would like to see background checks for private sales of handguns at places like gun shows and require keeping a receipt during person-to-person private sales.

State Sen. Dan Sparks of District 27 said he had many constituents who learned of the Sandy Hook shooting and wanted laws passed for Minnesota.

“People wanted to make sure we are protected here,” he said.

Sparks was one of five DFLers in the state Senate who signed on to a gun bill proposed by Republican Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chaska. It was an alternative to the proposal in the House, and it had the backing of the National Rifle Association. It sought to expand information entered in the NCIC system, such as greater mental health information, and it strengthened penalties for straw purchases, where lawful buyers purchase guns for prohibited ones. The bill did not expand background checks on person-to-person sales, a point of controversy. It never received a full vote in the Senate and died.

Sparks said he saw Ortman’s bill as politically feasible. He added Minnesota has strict gun laws on the books already and said many Greater Minnesota constituents don’t want more rules that impact the responsible gun owners.

“We are more attuned to safety,” he said. “We have grown up with it.”

State Rep. Shannon Savick of District 27A was on the House Public Safety Committee and delved into the guns issue. She was disappointed the Legislature couldn’t produce a bill to expand background checks for person-to-person sales.

“We do background checks for sales at licensed dealers. Why not for other sales?” she asked.

The NRA was well-organized, said the DFLer from Wells. She described getting thousands of email messages opposing gun control of any kind. She noted polls that were showing overwhelming support in favor of closing loopholes in background checks but added the advocates of gun control are less organized than opponents.

“It doesn’t matter what it is. If it’s a baby step, they’ll fight it,” Savick said. “It’s not a lot of people. It’s just a lot of email.”

Many officials, nationally and locally, including Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi and Austin Police Chief Brian Krueger, supported the idea of stricter background checks.

Yet, Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, has been cautious. Poppe was one of several rural democrats who strongly opposed any sort of gun legislation this year. Poppe previously said proposals for that were too hasty.

“I understand that a lot of people want background checks, and I do think we have got to have some discussion,” she said. “What is the right balance, and when and where is it appropriate.”

Poppe mainly spoke about potential negative impacts on law-abiding gun owners. Because that is unclear, she wasn’t going to support stricter measures. She has heard plenty of outcry from gun owners about fear of a national gun registry.


More enforcement, not more law

“There are 22,000 gun laws on the books,” said Milan Hart of Hart Brothers Weaponry in Albert Lea. What is needed, he said, is more enforcement of those laws, not more laws.

“They are never satisfied. They always want more guns laws,” he said. Noting he was a military veteran, he added, “I fought for the right to have those freedoms. Why should I give anything up if I have my nose clean?”

He said if lawmakers could pass a law that actually addressed the loophole for person-to-person sales, he would favor it. What happens, Hart said, is the legislation ends up having riders and add-ons that throw red tape at gun owners and could more or less disallow private gun sales or, worse, resemble a national gun registration. The other problem, he said, is that lawmakers pass a gun law that looks fine on paper, but then bureaucrats create rules that don’t stick to the law’s intent.

His wife, Elaine Hart, said that if a law could be simple — such as a phone call to a real person at a computer doing a background check before selling the gun — that it might be OK with gun owners. Too much red tape or too restrictive rules, she said, could cause the black market to grow.

Requiring gun sales to happen only through dealers would be out of the question, she said.

“People shouldn’t have to go through a dealer to sell their private stuff,” Elaine said.

Milan said banning weapons or high-capacity magazines won’t prevent school massacres or other mass murders. The solution he sees is greater funding for mental health care in America.