NRA faces major test of clout in Minnesota

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE and BRANDON STAHL , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: February 4, 2013 - 12:00 PM

DFL-controlled Legislature will weigh a range of gun-control bills. NRA says numbers are on its side.

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Second amendment supporter Meredith Mattison of Forest Lake made her point with a sign during the Capitol rally to protest new gun control legislation Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, in St. Paul, MN.

Photo: Joles, David, Star Tribune

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From the deer-hunting stands of rural Minnesota to the legislative chambers of the State Capitol, the Second Amendment speaks loud and clear, and the state's gun laws reflect the power and persistence of the National Rifle Association.

But in the wake of gun violence that has erupted across the country -- from the 20 schoolchildren slain in Connecticut to the employee shooting in Minneapolis that took six lives -- the NRA's power in Minnesota is about to face a severe test.

DFLers who took control of the Legislature in January are readying a slew of bills that would ban assault-style weapons, extend background checks to private sales and take other prevention measures.

The NRA says no way.

President Obama will cast a giant spotlight on the issue Monday, when he comes to Minneapolis for a round table with local law enforcement. The fight, which starts in earnest with Tuesday's legislative hearings, will shed light on the passion, core beliefs and historic origins driving Minnesota's gun-owning culture.

Nearly one in 10 Minnesotans has a firearms hunting license, nearly 120,000 hold a permit to carry weapons and the right to hunt is chiseled into the state Constitution.

"They have a very passionate constituency," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who owes his start in politics to an NRA endorsement but who has not always followed NRA policy. The NRA is so popular outside of the Twin Cities that many rural DFL legislators covet the NRA's top rating along with their GOP opponents.

That makes for political math that often favors the NRA.

"What part of 61 Republicans and seven rural Democrats don't you understand?" said Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, when asked why he believed most proposed gun control legislation wouldn't pass a Legislature his party controls. He is a gun-rights supporter who represents the far northeastern corner of the state.

The NRA's power is centered in areas with little or no gun violence and gathers its strength not from big-dollar campaign contributions, but from the sheer commitment and staying power of gun rights activists.

Between 2008 and 2012, the NRA spent just $5,240 on Minnesota legislative races. In 2012, the liberal group Alliance for a Better Minnesota spent $144,365 to defeat a single legislative candidate in Edina.

Strength is membership

The NRA "spends money where they have to spend money, and they obviously don't have to spend it in Minnesota," said Joe Olson, director of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance in Minnesota and a former NRA national board member. "The strength of the NRA ... is their membership. Once they're provided with direction, they go and do it."

Gun control supporters have their own strong constituency, and the NRA is not invincible. Minnesota's top three politicians -- Gov. Mark Dayton, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken -- are all F-rated by the NRA. Of the NRA-endorsed legislative candidates who ran in November, 22 lost, including 14 incumbents.

Advocates of gun control say the NRA's strategy of portraying even modest restrictions as a step toward confiscation has played out and that the organization's power is on the wane.

But the NRA can point to a daunting list of successes. In 1985, it helped pass a "preemption" law that prohibited cities and counties from enacting laws stricter than those of the state. A 2003 law widened the ability to carry loaded weapons in public. A court later struck down the law, but supporters persisted and in 2005 passed a second version. In 2011, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed an expanded "Castle Doctrine," which would have allowed gun owners to protect themselves wherever they were, not just in their homes. In a rare defeat for the NRA, Dayton vetoed the bill and supporters lacked the votes to override.

Wes Skoglund, a veteran Minneapolis DFL legislator who left in 2006, said that NRA supporters "really have the power to impact an election. ... I don't think this is an exaggeration to say there's 100 pro-gun one-issue voters for every one gun-control one-issue voter."

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who often carries a .40-caliber Glock with a high-capacity magazine while at the Capitol, predicts that "not much will pass" this year.

"If somebody's weak in a vote, they don't get threatened," said Cornish, the Legislature's leading gun rights advocate. "We get members to write letters and say how important it is to them, from their district. That's where the NRA and Gun Owners Alliance comes in handy -- we've got 'em by ZIP code, the membership."

As the NRA has worked to ease gun restrictions, the number of Minnesotans who carry firearms has been soaring.

The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension issued 16,400 permits-to-carry in 2010. By 2012, the figure had doubled to 31,660. In a state of nearly 5.4 million people, 509,269 hold firearms licenses to hunt deer.

Those kinds of numbers translate into a powerful ground force at elction time.

Rep. Tom Anzelc, of Balsam Township, attributes his 2012 win in part to his "A" rating from the NRA. Redistricting had pitted the Iron Range DFLer against fellow Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick, a Deer River Republican with an "A minus" rating.

'Made a difference'

That slight edge, combined with support from NRA members and such outdoors groups as Ducks Unlimited and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, "made a difference in my election," Anzelc said. He noted that even non-hunters in his district pay attention to whom the NRA supports.

Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor and former White House counsel in the George W. Bush administration, noted the NRA has vast resources it can turn on a state when needed.

"They may be fairly quiet until you raise an issue they're concerned about," he said. "They tend to be a sleeping giant."

Nationally, NRA groups poured $24 million into the 2012 election. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a gun-rights supporting Republican, was pitted against Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in a recall, the NRA sent more than $800,000 into the state. While spending little on Minnesota legislative races, the NRA ponied up $220,000 for Republican Tim Pawlenty's 2002 gubernatorial race and 2006 re-election. Pawlenty signed the permit-to-carry bill. Twice.

Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota - Working to End Gun Violence, maintains the NRA's power is waning. "The NRA has created an overblown perception of their influence," she said. Legislators have crossed the organization and survived, she said, and others have supported the NRA's agenda and still been defeated.

The NRA has previously endorsed Rep. John Persell, but the Bemidji DFLer said he doesn't "give a rip" about the organization or its legislative grades. Persell, who has already pledged to support extending background checks to gun show sales, said the NRA has gone too far.

"If the NRA has an influence on me," he said, "it's a negative influence."

House Public Safety and Finance Division Chairman Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, says that views like Persell's give him hope that gun control efforts may gain traction this year.

"I do sense there seems to be a chance to do something substantial, not just putting window dressing on it," Paymar said.

But Chris Rager, an NRA lobbyist who divides his time among Minnesota, Iowa and Louisiana, said the NRA will do whatever is necessary in Minnesota to block gun restrictions.

"We're going to make sure our membership isn't going to lose ground on the Second Amendment front," he said.

jim.ragsdale@startribune.com 651-952-5042 brandon.stahl@startribune.com 612-673-4626

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