A simple sign held by a school student in support of gun control captured the essence of the current discussion about guns in America. The sign read: “When leaders act like children and children act like leaders, it’s time for a change.” The recent actions of Minnesota legislative leaders in refusing to allow adequate hearings on the topic of gun control based on explanations such as “not sufficient legislative time available,” “knee-jerk reactions out of fear or emotion” and “focusing on the school buildings will take care of the situation,” and other fabricated rationale show the true intent is to stall and hope the protesting students’ interest fades. Federal legislative excuses for inaction have been even more tone-deaf. Time for a change is clearly at hand.
Minnesota state Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, thoughtfully articulated (Opinion Exchange, March 15) how Americans are struggling “with balancing public safety and personal liberties” and decried the shooting deaths at an Orlando nightclub, a Las Vegas concert, a Texas church and a Florida school. He and three of his colleagues, in a bipartisan effort, then introduced a bill relating to background checks before gun purchases, which polling data show has wide support across the nation. More recently, state Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, and several of his colleagues discussed other bills dealing with gun control and their frustration with not being able to be even heard on the topic. These legislators and the many others who support such legislation deserve the chance to have their bills heard in committees and their ideas put to a vote.
I had the privilege of serving in the Minnesota Legislature in the 1970s. I spent much of that time as the chief House author of the Handgun Control Act, helping a courageous attorney general, Warren Spannaus, and other legislators from both parties fashion a bipartisan solution to the many murders, suicides and accidental deaths then being caused in our state by handguns. It took several years and three legislative sessions, but we ultimately passed good legislation that was signed by two governors, Wendell Anderson (1975) and Rudy Perpich (1977), which banned cheap “Saturday night specials,” provided background checks for people buying handguns from dealers and a waiting period before purchase. The legislation also listed five categories of people who could not buy a handgun: those under age 18, unless they had completed an approved safety class; mentally ill people, as defined; people who had abused alcohol or drugs, as defined; and felons. The legislation also required a permit to carry a handgun in public and gave local sheriffs significant discretion in issuing the permits. However, that discretion provision was unfortunately changed by a later Legislature, resulting in more permits and more weapons on the streets.
Many of the arguments heard today are identical to those we heard in the ’70s. For example, having guns is “a way of life” in Minnesota and “the Second Amendment prohibits any such legislation” were broadly proclaimed as reasons why the Handgun Control Act should not be passed. In dealing with these arguments for several years and in front of many legislative committees, I and my colleagues learned several lessons that are relevant today:
• First, supporters of gun-control legislation need to repeatedly explain what the proposed legislation will not do. The sensible bills being talked about in 2018 in Minnesota and elsewhere concerning background checks, bump stocks and military-style weapons will not affect the Minnesota “way of life.” The “way of life” involving guns in the home will continue. Hunting with rifles and shotguns will continue unabated. Shotguns, handguns and numerous types of hunting rifles will continue to be sold and used in Minnesota’s great outdoors. Kids who wish will continue to learn to safely handle guns from their responsible parents and from reputable gun-safety courses. Kids who wish will continue to enjoy target shooting and learn to appreciate the joys and camaraderie of hunting with friends and family. But our police and other law-enforcement people charged with protecting schools, churches and public places will have fewer military-type weapons such as AK-47s and AR-15s to worry about.
A corollary to describing what the bill does not do is to forcefully argue that it will help save lives and make our schools and streets safer but admit that it will not solve all problems. It’s similar to the argument for Secret Service protection for public officials, a police presence at various events (maybe even schools) and the use of metal detectors. Bad things still happen, but these common-sense actions help keep the public safe.
• Another lesson is to shatter the myth of the Second Amendment argument. We all should support the hard-won freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights. But we need to remember that it is the U.S. Supreme Court, and not a radio talk-show host, blogger or social-media commenter who defines those freedoms. In fact, the type of legislation that is actually prohibited under the Second Amendment by the Supreme Court is very limited. For example, background checks or restrictions on civilians owning military-type weapons have not been prohibited.
• A third lesson is to try to keep the issue bipartisan. In the gun-control battles of the 1970s, Republicans co-sponsored the legislation in both the House and the Senate. Former Republican Gov. Elmer L. Andersen submitted helpful testimony, future Republican Gov. Arne Carlson was effective in the lengthy floor debates and Republican County Attorney Gary Flakne was vocal in his support of the legislation. On the other side of the aisle, many DFLers, including House Majority Leader Irv Anderson, were tough opponents. Helping to protect schoolkids and teachers as they study, learn and teach should not be a partisan issue.
Like today, the argument was made that we need more guns to stop guns. The number of mass killings and their locations show the fallacy of this argument. Are we going to start arming teachers and expand this to arm disc jockeys in all nightclubs? Are we going to arm rabbis, priests, ministers and other religious leaders to stop shootings in places of worship? This is not the path to take, and the kids in the schools know it. They are protesting effectively and thoughtfully. They are acting like leaders and not children. And they know that Nov. 6, 2018, is less than eight months away.
Tom Berg is a former DFL state legislator and U.S. attorney. He is the author of “Minnesota’s Miracle, Learning from the Government that Worked,” published by the University of Minnesota Press.