Ideas for legislation abound, but little happens

Published 9:45 am Wednesday, June 26, 2013

America has debated the role of firearms in society all the way back to colonial times. The Second Amendment clears the way for ownership, but lawmakers continue to debate rules for who gets to own them. --Brandi Hagen/Albert Lea Tribune

America has debated the role of firearms in society all the way back to colonial times. The Second Amendment clears the way for ownership, but lawmakers continue to debate rules for who gets to own them. –Brandi Hagen/Albert Lea Tribune

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.

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.

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.”

“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.

To politicians, the issue of guns is treated like many other issues, whether it is abortion, environment or death penalty, said former District 27A state Rep. Dan Dorman, who maintains strong ties on both sides of the aisle at the Capitol.

“There is the public policy discussion that should happen, but the political reality of politics comes into it,” he said. “The caucuses say, ‘How do we use this for political purposes?’ rather than, ‘What’s the best policy?’”

Tragedies such as Sandy Hook draw attention to gun control but little is said about the daily loss of life to gun violence, Dorman said. In the end, does passing laws change anything or are political parties just using the issue for votes? Are new laws creating a black market by banning weapons or supplies?

“Are we going to pay lip service to something that sounds good, but are they good, sound ideas?” he asked.

No matter how people debate, in the end, people still are going to buy guns lawfully in America, Dorman said. Much of the chatter is just attempts to sway votes.


Letter writers voice gun opinions

The Tribune received many letters to the editor in recent months concerning guns. Here are excerpts from some of the letters:

Those gun owners, the NRA and other advocates have consistently turned back well-meaning but ineffective proposals to do away with those pesky Bill of Rights in our Constitution — substituting their own feelings for whatever they feel should be enacted for the rule of law. These proposals to disarm those who are least likely to commit crimes with firearms (legal and licensed gun owners) are, like most “progressive” proposals, devoid of rationale and reason. — James Hanson, Clarks Grove


When we hear about the murder of first-graders in Newtown, Conn., we are shocked and saddened. When we hear about the death and carnage caused by terrorists in Boston, we are shocked and saddened. When we hear about 30,000 deaths by guns in America, we think, “Can’t we do something to at least try to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them?” And when we, 90 percent of us, ask our government, our elected representatives in Congress, to pass laws that would extend background checks for gun sales, a measure that would in no way infringe on the Second Amendment, and would absolutely not confiscate the guns of any of us responsible gun owners and hunters, but would keep some criminals, some mentally unstable people, and terrorists from easily buying guns, we are told, “No, you can’t have that.” So we ask ourselves, “Wait a minute, aren’t we supposed to be a democracy?” — Neil Opstad, Albert Lea


I sit and wonder if there is more we all can do to slow the fall of what we call “freedom.” The ATF can lose 2,000-plus weapons to straw buyers and only recover around 710 of them. (Search for “ATF gun walking scandal” on Of which, some were involved in crimes and a death of a border patrol officer. Not much said after that. But they can shut down a man’s livelihood who kept things as above board and legal as he could. Wow! — LeRoy “Willy” Williams Jr., Albert Lea


What about the other side of this issue? There are widespread arguments that violent video games and violence in movies stokes real-life violence and shootings, but Democratic senators and representatives in particular receive big campaign donations from the entertainment industry and are not even allowing discussion, let alone legislation, to call negative attention to their big-money donors in Hollywood. — John Forman, Albert Lea


I find it so hard to understand that when 80 percent plus of Republican voters and 90 percent plus of all voters are for background checks that our legislators have such a problem with passing the bill. It just goes to show how powerful the firearms lobbyists are. Do we want legislators that do our bidding or do we want legislators who can be bought out by those firearms lobbyists? — Wayne Thorson, Albert Lea


If there is anything to fear it is the notion that in order for all of us to be safe going into the local grocery store, everyone needs to be carrying a gun. Can you imagine what it would be like if a demented individual came into a local grocery store shooting a gun? People would shoot first and then ask questions. Innocent people would be shooting each other. Imagine a police officer walking into this mess. How would she or he know a person holding the gun was or wasn’t the crazy person? — Joel Erickson, Albert Lea


While I do believe that every American should have the right to carry a gun, I also believe that deeper background checks could save lives, but we should not take away the guns. The day the government starts to take away one freedom, more freedoms will follow. So it starts with the right to bear arms being taken away, and then something like freedom of speech or religion will be next. — Daniel Jones, Albert Lea


We need common sense gun safety laws. Another recent study showed that states with the weakest gun laws had the most gun incidents. Let’s all call or write our representatives and let them know that we want sensible gun laws banning many assault weapons, straw purchases and the trafficking of weapons high-capacity gun clips, and have the strongest background checks that track those who should not have access to guns and ammo. We register our cars, get insurance and are regulated in their safe use. Sensible gun laws will save lives. — Patti Kimble, Emmons


I do not understand how doing background checks on anyone purchasing a firearm is going to prevent someone from committing a mass murder. Adam Lanzo took his mother’s guns and killed her. He used her guns to kill 26 human beings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. A background check would not have prevented him from doing what he did. He used his mother’s guns. — John Wojszynski, Albert Lea


You and your kind are all about saving everybody. I don’t need your help saving me. Machine guns have been banned since 1934. The so-called assault weapons you and your liberal friends are trying to ban are semiautomatics. If I want to own one, it’s none of your business.

Let’s start talking about taking away your First Amendment rights and see what you do then. Leave the honest, gun-toting Americans alone. — Tim Kasper, Albert Lea


The reality right now is we are losing our rights and freedoms. The government is forcing people to act contrary to religious beliefs; fiscal mismanagement of an epic scale, openness and transparency gave way to smoke-filled backroom deals and executive orders. The right to bear arms again is under attack. There will be a day when people will wake up and find their choices gone and compliance is mandatory. — Randy Kruckeberg, Mankato

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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