Before she went into politics, Sen. Carrie Ruud was in-line skating along a county highway near north-central Minnesota's Cross Lake one day in 1993 when she sensed she was being followed by some guys in a pickup truck.
From that moment on, she said, "I decided I didn't want to be a victim."
Soon Ruud had a permit to carry a firearm. And she became an avid gun rights supporter, an ethic she brought to the State Capitol — along with her gun — when she was elected to the Senate in 2002 from the Brainerd Lakes area.
Ruud, like many of her fellow Republicans and more than a few DFLers, helps illustrate the long-standing legislative dominance of the gun rights movement at Minnesota's Capitol, where the National Rifle Association doesn't have a single lobbyist solely assigned to the state. Instead, the movement has counted on dozens of lawmakers who come from areas where firearms are deeply woven into family and community traditions, underpinned by a philosophy of self-reliance and self-defense.
"It's not an issue here. We have guns in our homes," said Ruud, 66, of Breezy Point. "It's a way of life."
It's the reason, despite the frequency of emotionally wrenching school shootings and the marches and rallies that have followed, that it remains unlikely that gun control backers in Minnesota could expect to score legislative victories any time soon.
"There is no time to waste on ideas that don't work or have no chance of passing the Legislature this year," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said last week. This response followed the many hundreds of students who walked out of schools to march for stricter gun laws, and after two of his own Republican colleagues joined two DFLers to advocate for universal background checks and mandatory reporting of lost and stolen guns.
If Gazelka seemed dismissive, he had reason to be: Key members of the GOP-controlled Legislature will never sign on to bills that could even be considered more restrictive or impose new mandates on gun owners or gun dealers. They chair the pertinent committees and control the flow of legislation that reaches the floor of the House and Senate, making new legislation unlikely.
"We have a lot of allies," said Rob Doar, the political director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus.
Although the NRA's regional lobbyist splits his time between several states, Doar's group, and the gun rights movement more broadly, can be mobilized at a moment's notice.
"The e-mails are 120 to 1 not to touch the gun laws," said Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, a retired police officer who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, making him a key lawmaker on the issue. Earlier in March, when a DFL representative used some arcane legislative maneuvering to force a hearing on two gun control measures in his committee, Johnson said he received 2,000 e-mails urging him to stand firm.
The bills were tabled.
House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the Legislature responds to well-organized, cohesive coalitions — and she said that's given gun rights advocates their long-standing advantage.
"They've done a better job of building their membership, communicating with their membership and then driving contacts to state officials," Hortman said.
Doar, of the Gun Owners Caucus, illustrates the new breed of Second Amendment activists. He didn't grow up around hunting or guns and said he never owned a firearm until he witnessed an armed robbery in downtown Minneapolis.
"I realized I didn't have any means to protect myself. That motivated me to take self-defense into my own control," Doar said. He had a permit to carry six months later. He joined social outings at the gun range — a popular pastime in many communities — and then became "an avid but less than successful hunter," he said.
After years of volunteering to protect and expand gun rights while continuing his work as a business analyst, Doar is now a full-time, paid presence at the Capitol. This is a first for the Gun Owners Caucus, and a recognition that national winds may be blowing up from Florida, where the recent massacre at a Parkland high school led the GOP-led Legislature there to do the unthinkable: enact a new regulation preventing people from buying a gun until they turn 21.
"There's a lot of calls for gun control and school safety, and we needed to be a present voice to make sure gun owners are represented in the conversation, and that accurate information is getting out to lawmakers," Doar said.
One Republican source at the Capitol, who was granted anonymity to speak freely, questioned whether the gun rights lobby is really all that powerful if two Senate Republicans could so brazenly call for gun control measures.
"We don't tell lawmakers how to think," Doar replied. Still, his group immediately attacked state Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, who along with Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, made the call for stronger background checks.
Jensen "made commitments as a candidate and he's backed away from those commitments," Doar said.
Jensen seemed to sense what he waded into. Last week he took to the opinion page of the Star Tribune, where he acknowledged that "I have disappointed colleagues and staff and constituents and friends." Still, he wrote that he was also inspired to continue the work.
Ruud, who rejoined the Senate in 2012 after losing her seat six years earlier, is known as a frequent, forceful speaker on behalf of gun rights in the closed meetings of the Senate Republican Caucus. She said she would tell her wavering colleagues what many gun rights advocates argue, that the current laws in place can get the job done. They just need to be enforced.
"In Chicago their murder rate is really high, but I don't think those people have a permit to carry. The law-abiding citizen isn't the problem," she said.
Ruud seemed unbothered by the current controversy during an interview in her office, where a wall is adorned with her first pheasant, its spiky feathered posterior jutting out.
She was dismissive of students demonstrating for gun control: "The signs are fun. The parades are fun. But when you ask them questions, they really don't have a base of knowledge. I would just ask them to do a little more research," Ruud said.
The students and the new gun control activists roaming the halls of the Capitol are worlds apart from Ruud's rural Senate district, she said: "We have a high percentage of gun ownership in my district, and they don't want to see their rights infringed upon."