Bob Mokos and Andrew Rothman, two Twin Cities men on opposite sides of a heated gun debate at the State Capitol on Tuesday, agreed on this much and nothing else: the Legislature is not going to pass any bill toughening Minnesota’s firearms laws this year.
That was clear at the outset of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s “informational hearing” on two bills to tighten Minnesotan’s gun laws, including a broadly popular proposal to require stronger background checks. By the end, the committee’s chairman and sponsor of both bills acknowledged as much.
“It’s a tough conversation to have,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. “Over time we have to lay the groundwork for it.”
Tuesday’s hearing in a crowded Minnesota Senate Building room featured many of the trappings by now familiar to the long-running, always-testy gun debate at the Capitol. Dozens of activists from both sides lined up beforehand, with Second Amendment activists wearing red and maroon while supporters of stricter gun laws decked out in blue and white.
“This is a circus. It’s literally just a show,” said Rothman, president of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance and a computer programmer who lives in Chanhassen. Rothman suggested the hearing was intended to mollify gun-safety activists, who also held a rally and lobby day at the Capitol that drew several hundred people.
Mokos, a retired Delta Air Lines pilot new to political activism, understands the political realities around the gun issue.
In Minnesota, that means a House Republican majority whose leaders are openly hostile to additional limits on gun purchases.
“The other side, they’re just going to stall. I find it morally incomprehensible,” said Mokos, a Burnsville resident and handgun owner who lost his sister to gun violence.
Latz’s measure would widen the types of gun purchases subject to background checks to more than just federally licensed firearms dealers, primarily to include sales at gun shows and in transactions between private parties. His other bill would give victims and law enforcement access to “gun violence protective orders” against individuals in domestic violence situations.
“When dangerous people are able to evade the background check system, we endanger public safety,” said New Hope Police Chief Tim Fournier.
Under questioning from Latz, gun rights activists said they see stronger background checks as a veiled path to government registration of firearms.
“What we are afraid of is a government list that links each of us to the firearms we own,” said Joseph Olson, a Hamline law professor and longtime foe of tougher gun laws. Said Rothman: “We’re told it’s not registration. I don’t buy it.”
Tuesday’s rally and lobby day was organized by Everytown for Gun Safety, an effort initiated by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The group’s nationwide efforts to strengthen background checks rose in response to U.S. mass shootings, especially the December 2012 deaths of 20 children and six adults at the hands of a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Sandy Hook tipped Mokos into his recent activism, but he has seen gun violence in his own life. A high school friend who was shot between the eyes, losing sight in one of them. A cousin and another school acquaintance, both dead of self-inflicted gunshots. And in his hometown of Chicago, in 1986, his older sister, who encountered a robber outside a church where she was going to volunteer.
“Somebody came up and put a bullet in her left temple at close range,” Mokos said. “He rifled through the car — they found fingerprints. They never caught him.”
Because the shooter was never apprehended, Mokos doesn’t know whether the gun was obtained legally. When Sandy Hook came and went with still no progress on new gun laws, Mokos said he finally felt compelled to take up activism.
“We have to balance the rights of legal gun owners with those who have a fear there’s too many guns out there in the wrong hands,” Mokos said.
Conflicts, common themes
Mokos testified before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, the first time he’s ever appeared before a legislative panel. That’s in contrast to Rothman, a familiar figure at Capitol gun hearings.
Fear of violence is at the root of Rothman’s political activism.
“I was raised by New York Jews — it’s kind of the opposite of being a gun owner,” Rothman said. But earlier in his life, Rothman said, the boyfriend of a roommate at the time threatened his life.
“I told him, get out of here or I’ll call the cops. And he said, ‘You can call the cops, but when they leave I’ll come back,’ ” Rothman said. “And I looked into carrying a handgun, and at the time that was not legal.”
Action, then stalled efforts
That’s what pushed Rothman into lobbying for the 2005 state law that allows people to carry handguns. It’s the last time Minnesota’s Legislature has made a major change to gun laws; several efforts in recent years to legally tighten access to guns have stalled, blocked by a coalition of Republicans and outstate DFLers.
Latz said Tuesday that he saw little sense in bringing background checks to the Senate floor this year, given opposition by House leaders. The Legislature’s failure to advance gun control legislation could be an issue in some legislative races this fall; polls, including the Star Tribune Minnesota Poll, have found overwhelming majority support for tougher background checks, particularly among suburban voters.
“There’s this focus and this energy among people who support common-sense gun safety legislation,” said Lizzie Ulmer, spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety.
“We want lawmakers to support it, and if they don’t support it, we’ll find lawmakers who will.”
Rothman acknowledged that gun-control activists have grown more organized recently, winning more moneyed backers like Bloomberg. Gun control opponents have long benefited from their own powerful, well-heeled ally in the form of the National Rifle Association.
After more than a decade of volunteer activism, Rothman recently started drawing a part-time paycheck during the legislative session from the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance.
Mokos, too, has professionalized his activism: He applied to be and was accepted as a fellow at Everytown for Gun Safety. But he’s not drawing a paycheck.
“I’m doing this for my sister,” he said.