Gun lobby's influence is overstated

  • Article by: HEATHER MARTENS
  • Updated: January 2, 2013 - 9:25 PM

A full history shows building support for responsibility.

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Seven-year-old Bre Frazier listened to the reading of names of loved ones who have been killed by violence during a memorial service. Bre’s cousin, Parrish Gray, was killed in June, 2012.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Counterpoint

The article "Minnesota gun law history is hard fought" (Jan. 1) was badly out-of-date. Even its main example, a gubernatorial election from 30 years ago, rests on a simplistic explanation of a race that included many other factors. Also, much has changed since then.

The legislation that so offended gun-rights activists decades ago, a background check before the purchase of a pistol or assault weapon, enjoys overwhelming public support today, including among gun owners.

A University of Minnesota poll found that 82 percent of the public supports requiring a background check before the purchase of any firearm, no matter where it is sold. Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that three out of four NRA members nationally support the policy.

These recent polls are significant, because they show support for measures that go beyond the initial background-check laws passed in the 1980s that applied only to purchases from licensed dealers. When people realize that a full 40 percent of firearm sales (such as those by unlicensed sellers at gun shows or online) are not subject to background checks, their support for further screening strengthens.

In 2012, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar won re-election in a landslide -- with an "F" rating from the NRA. Another NRA pariah, Rick Nolan, unseated an incumbent congressman who consistently voted with the gun lobby.

Minnesotans elected 64 new state legislators, the overwhelming majority of whom owe nothing to the NRA. Legislators from all over the state who voted against the NRA-backed "shoot first" bill last year -- which failed to become law -- were returned to office.

A 2011 gun-lobby effort to repeal Minnesota's background-check law also died, after a statewide outcry arose when the bill passed committee on a party-line vote. The hordes of grass-roots supporters the lobby is said to control did not show up to agitate for the repeal of background checks. Yet none of these facts was mentioned in the article.

Any account of the battle over Minnesota gun laws that completely ignores the decade of the 1990s is woefully incomplete. In 1992, Minnesota passed the first law in the country that prohibited gun purchases by convicted domestic abusers -- a law that became the model for federal legislation successfully carried by U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. It passed with only one vote in dissent, in spite of strong NRA opposition. In 1993, the Legislature voted to hold adults whose unsecured firearms injure or kill a child criminally liable.

While it is correct to see the passage of Minnesota's permit-to-carry law in 2003 as a major victory for the gun lobby, passage was hardly a cakewalk. For seven years, Protect Minnesota (then Citizens for a Safer Minnesota) and its allies successfully defeated the gun lobby's efforts to pass this legislation, the national NRA's highest priority. The bill finally passed in Minnesota because of a reactionary swing in the makeup of the Legislature in 2002 due to backlash over the memorial service following Wellstone's death.

The 2003 conceal-and-carry law turned what was a privilege -- carrying a loaded gun in public -- into an automatic gimme. Contrary to what the article states, applicants for permits need not have a clean record. They can be guilty of a variety of misdemeanors, including assault, interfering with a 911 call and drunken driving.

Andrew Engeldinger, a concealed-carry permit holder who murdered six people at Accent Signage in Minneapolis this fall, had led police on a high-speed car chase just a few years before getting his gun permit. His record, however, was not sufficient grounds to deny him a permit under Minnesota's permit-to-carry law.

Engeldinger had serious, undiagnosed mental illness. But the 2003 law tied law enforcement's hands, demanding an impossible burden of proof and prohibiting the ability to deny people like Engeldinger a permit.

Is this what NRA members want? No. The Luntz poll shows that three out of four NRA members oppose giving carry permits to people with a record of violent misdemeanors.

Engeldinger was a member of the conceal-and-carry generation that came of age when Minnesota endorsed the gun lobby's premise: that loaded firearms in more places lead to more rather than less safety.

In Minnesota, about 1,000 permit holders have been guilty of crimes, including murder and road-rage shootings. What we now have is not the polite society we were promised, but a perpetually traumatized one. The Newtown, Conn., shooter's mother, whom he murdered at home, surrounded by her guns, is yet another victim of the NRA ideology she had adopted.

Not surprisingly, the NRA lobbyists' solution after the Newtown massacre is more guns in more places -- now, it's schools. It doesn't matter that Columbine High School had an armed guard at the time of the massacre there. It doesn't matter that armed citizens have been present at many of the 62 mass shootings in this country in the last 30 years and have failed to prevent the killing at a single one. They are counting on the myth of their power -- not the quality of their ideas -- to win.

If we are to stop the slaughter of 34 Americans every day in gun homicides, and if we in Minnesota are to prevent murders from happening in the first place, the last thing we need is for politicians to continue in their learned helplessness against the gun lobby. Responsible journalists should not actively hamper real change by exaggerating the power of out-of-touch NRA lobbyists.

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Heather Martens is executive director of Protect Minnesota: Working to End Gun Violence, and can be contacted at heather@protectmn.org.

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