The Feb. 14 massacre at a Florida high school has provoked a searing question about Minnesota’s gun laws: Are they tough enough to prevent a similar tragedy from happening here?
State Sen. Warren Limmer of Maple Grove, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, answered that question with another: “Can any law effectively protect our citizens against a madman who is intent on bringing a gun into a vulnerable audience?”
From the White House and Capitol Hill in Washington to St. Paul, Tallahassee and other state capitals, leaders are facing new demands for action, fueled by angry and poignant pleas from students and parents. Recent history suggests that Congress won’t lead the way — no major gun control law has been enacted since a 1994 assault weapons ban that expired a decade later. So attention is focused on the states.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump said states should act on their own. “They don’t necessarily need 100 percent from the federal government,” he said. “I really implore them to do it, and to do it as quickly as possible.”
And Saturday night Trump tweeted that tweeting that arming teachers as a deterrent against such often deadly violence — an idea he championed in recent days — is "Up to States."
Minnesota’s gun laws scored a C+ in a national ranking by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, named for former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, the Arizona Democrat wounded by a gunman in 2011. The measure of the effectiveness and shortcomings of each state’s gun laws put Minnesota 12th in the U.S. overall; Florida was 26th, with an F. California and Connecticut were at the top.
“Minnesota has at least done something, but not anywhere near enough,” said Laura Cutilletta, the Giffords Law Center’s legal director.
The group commends Minnesota for imposing child-access liability on gun owners and for protecting domestic-abuse victims from gun violence.
But it notes that the state does not require background checks on private sales, limit the number of guns a person can buy at once or allow local governments to regulate guns.
The state “does regulate assault weapons, but it doesn’t ban them like California and Connecticut,” Cutilletta said. “Guns don’t respect boundaries or borders,” she added, noting that neighboring states Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin do not restrict assault weapon sales.
The Giffords Law Center gave both Dakotas an F grade, Iowa a C and Wisconsin a C-.
Bryan Strawser, chairman of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, said that existing state limits are adequate. It’s “fair to look comprehensively at the issue of violence and firearms,” especially issues related to mental health, he said, but “that doesn’t lead me to believe that the solution is additional gun control.”
In November, Guns & Ammo magazine listed the best states for gun owners, based on state laws. Washington, D.C., ranked lowest, followed by New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Minnesota was 41st. Arizona, Alaska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Montana topped the list.
Horrific shootings have been catalysts for change. In 2016, after a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., and the Orlando nightclub shooting, California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed a law requiring background checks for ammunition buyers and a ban on ammunition magazines with more than 10 bullets.
State Sen. Isadore Hall, a Democrat, said then that the laws were a message to Washington politicians: “Now is not a time for more empty rhetoric. Now is a time to act.”
After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., President Barack Obama proposed universal background checks, an assault weapons ban and a magazine capacity limit of 10 cartridges. None became law.
The National Rifle Association said then, as it does now, that armed police officers should be in schools. The NRA rejected gun-free school zones, saying they attract killers, and said a gun ban wouldn’t help.
Less than four months after Sandy Hook, the Connecticut General Assembly — with considerable Republican support — passed legislation imposing universal background checks, creating the nation’s first gun-offender registry, expanding assault weapons restrictions and barring the sale of magazines with more than 10 rounds.
Democrat Brendan Sharkey, then the Connecticut House speaker, sponsored the bill. “We knew from the beginning that there was no way we were going to wait for anything to happen at the federal level,” he says now. “We knew it was in our hands and we were going to lead the way for what other states should do.”
Scott Wilson, president of the 30,000-member Connecticut Citizens Defense League, wishes the process had been more deliberative.
“The eyes of the world were on the state of Connecticut and a lot of people wanted something, anything, done,” Wilson said. “They did and continue to do the wrong things.”
Other gun rights activists worry that the same thing might happen now.
Mass shootings “make it difficult to have a rational conversation about what we should do,” Strawser said.
Jordan Stein, spokesman for Gun Owners of America, said the organization’s 1.5 million members and supporters agree with Trump and the NRA that some teachers should be armed but have no appetite for new limits on gun ownership.
“We just don’t feel that by restricting guns in any way it will stop these killers,” he said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican with a strong record favoring gun rights, on Friday called for raising the minimum age for buying all firearms to 21 and for new school safety and mental health initiatives.
Scott did not propose a ban on specific weapons. “Banning specific weapons and punishing law-abiding citizens is not going to fix this,” he said.
In Minnesota, there’s a move to require background checks for all gun purchases and to allow police and family members to ask courts to temporarily prohibit someone from having a gun if they pose a danger. Five states, including Connecticut and California, have “red flag” laws; more are debating them.
But gun control advocates in Minnesota face a skeptical audience at the Capitol, where Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature. Limmer believes the legislative focus should be on mental health and school safety — especially on giving schools the resources they need to be more secure. “A quick fix is not what I see as something that’s going to help,” he said.
Momentum for changes in state laws dissipated after earlier shootings, but Erin Zamoff, Minnesota chapter leader of Moms Demand Action, doesn’t think that will happen this time.
“This is not going to fade,” she warned legislators. “If they don’t have the courage to do it, then we will vote for someone else who will.”
The day after the Florida shooting, the Oregon House passed a bill barring people who commit domestic violence or engage in stalking from owning guns. The Senate approved it Thursday.
Democratic state Rep. Jeff Barker, co-author of the bill and a retired police officer, said some former peers aren’t happy about his attention to gun laws, but he feels obligated to tackle the issue — especially now. “People want to get something done,” he said.
The Rev. Nancy Nord Bence, executive director of Protect Minnesota, is trying to be optimistic about the prospects for ending gun violence.
“Someday it’s going to happen,” she said. “We may, sadly, need to experience a lot more death and destruction before it does, but Americans are changing on these issues.”