RANDALL, Minn. – Bob Hines, a retired well driller in central Minnesota, has bought many guns in his lifetime. He supports the Second Amendment and voted straight Republican in recent elections.
But he’s also tired of hearing stories of mass shootings on the news. And while he’s not sure anything can be done to curb the violence at this point, doing something seems better than just waiting for the next massacre.
Given the options, he’s started to warm to proposals such as expanding background checks. Such ideas appear to be gaining traction in Minnesota and elsewhere.
“I wouldn’t have a problem with that,” Hines said as he waited for his girlfriend outside a municipal building. “If you’re going to be a gun owner, you should be responsible. And if you’re a criminal, you’re not responsible.”
In this lakes region with a strong tradition of hunting and fishing, longtime gun-rights advocates are grappling with a response to the national trauma of back-to-back shootings in Texas and Ohio. In the district represented by the top Republican in the state Legislature, Sen. Paul Gazelka, an ardent defender of gun rights, residents are looking at a range of answers, including certain curbs on firearms.
Then there are gun owners like Shawn Kapsch, visiting a pawnshop in Little Falls, who sees additional gun measures as an intrusion into a way of life.
“It’s just more stuff that us good people have to go through to get a gun,” he said. “You’re hurting it for us gun owners that are actually responsible and don’t go and shoot people.”
The divide was apparent in a series of interviews with voters across the Ninth District, a GOP stronghold Gazelka won with 71% of the vote in 2016.
Surveys suggest that some gun-control proposals have strong support statewide. A Star Tribune poll conducted soon after the 2018 Parkland, Fla., school shooting found a majority of Minnesotans are ready for stricter gun laws, including banning military-style firearms and expanding criminal background checks for all gun purchases. But views diverge among partisan and geographical lines: Among Republicans and in those living in rural areas, support dropped to less than half.
In Nisswa, a picturesque summer destination sandwiched between lakes, a mix of locals and tourists milled about the town center before a weekly turtle race hosted by the local Chamber of Commerce. A handful of vacationers hadn’t heard of the shootings. Several who had heard offered that they thought mental illness, not guns, was the problem.
Lynn Anderson, who works at a gift shop on Main Street, sees the rise of hate and bigoted rhetoric as a bigger issue. When it comes to policy, “the focus should be on who’s buying these guns,” she said. While she thinks Gazelka is a “good guy,” the lifelong resident of nearby East Gull Lake is frustrated at the inaction at the state level.
“They need to approach it at least,” she said during a break from helping customers. “If the people aren’t willing, that’s another thing. But the senators of the people need to open the door for it.”
In the wake of the recent shootings, President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leading congressional Republicans have expressed openness to at least considering new gun-control measures.
But public opinion in this rural stretch of Minnesota generally leans toward solutions other than gun restrictions. That’s much in line with Gazelka, who advocates for focusing on mental health instead. Under Gazelka’s leadership, the Senate declined to hear a pair of DFL proposals to extend background checks to private sales and enact “red flag” laws that make it easier for authorities to take guns away from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.
A spokeswoman for Gazelka said Friday that he’s been getting a lot of e-mails and Facebook messages from constituents urging the senator to “stay strong” on gun rights. He remains open to holding hearings, she said.
Chester Nelson of Little Falls believes that societal shifts are fueling the problem. In his view, mass shooters are molded by a combination of bad parenting, violent media and lack of a moral compass. He doesn’t let his two children, both in grade school, play video games at home.
As the owner of a pawnshop and a licensed gun dealer, Nelson must perform background checks on customers who buy firearms. He doesn’t think expanding the practice will keep weapons out of the hands of criminals, who will still find ways to skirt the law. He sees the DFL proposals as “steppingstones for people who don’t want guns to get what they want.”
Tom Jacobson, a 71-year-old retiree in Randall, said Gazelka is taking the right approach. “I don’t think guns are the problem,” he said as he picked at a plate of French fries at a wood-paneled cafe. “I think people are the problem.”
Others in the tiny central Minnesota town aren’t so sure. Hines, the retired well driller, doesn’t understand why lawmakers aren’t willing to give ideas like expanding background checks a try.
“I don’t know why they’re fighting that,” he said. “Want to own a gun? Be responsible.”
His girlfriend, Debbie Louison, warily agreed. “I just don’t think they have a right to take people’s guns away,” the 61-year-old recent retiree cautioned. “The average person is responsible with their guns.”
But Louison is comfortable with restricting access to some guns, including military-style assault weapons. “What is the purpose of them?” she asked.
“It’s more for shooting ranges and stuff, so they’re not constantly reloading,” Hines offered.
“Oh, too bad,” she said, waving her hand. “To me, there’s no need for those guns.”
At a shoe shop a few doors down, Sandy Koenig had come to a similar conclusion. The store owner, 54, is frustrated with Democrats, who she says unfairly blame the president and politicize tragedies. She blames broader societal shifts, including violent video games and movies, for the shootings.
“The morals in this country are gone. They don’t have God,” she said. “The breakdown of the family, social media — it all contributes to this.”
But she, too, is open to expanded background checks and wants to see military-style weapons banned. “It wouldn’t hurt,” she said. “I mean, try something.”
Outside Nelson’s pawnshop, incoming college freshmen Luke Miller and Jacob Henifin batted around ideas for curbing violence. “As long as you ban semi-automatic rifles, you can kill less people,” Miller offered. Henifin worried that would be unfair to people who like to use such firearms at shooting ranges.
Miller remembers the calls for “never again” that emerged after the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012. Seven years later, after the Parkland shooting, they watched as peers again demanded action.
“A lot of organization happened,” he said. “But when it came down to it, nothing actually got passed.”