Minnesotans broadly support tighter background checks on all gun sales but are less confident that stricter gun laws would do much to prevent the alarming rise of mass shootings in recent years.
That's according to a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll, which found 82-percent support for criminal background checks on all gun sales including in private transactions and at gun shows. The overwhelming majority support extends across gender, income and political party lines, and to every part of the state, with even 78 percent of residents outside the Twin Cities expressing support.
Whether such laws would actually reduce mass shootings produced far less certainty. Only 15 percent felt it would help "a lot," while 45 percent expected it to help "not much" or "not at all." Those results also split much more along gender and party lines, with a majority of both men and Republicans thinking it would make little or no difference. Women and Democrats were more likely to think it would.
"How can it hurt?" Karen Tilbury, a poll respondent from Marietta, near the South Dakota border, said of laws that would slow down the gun-buying process. The 61-year-old retired dietitian said her husband has several hunting rifles, but she thinks owning and using weapons should be treated more like car ownership.
"If you're going to drive a car you have to be of a certain age, you have to have training, you have to be tested, you have to be licensed, you have to renew your license," said Tilbury, a Democrat. "Why shouldn't gun ownership be the same way?"
America's long-running debate about guns, always emotional and contentious, has been amplified in recent years after deadly shootings in schools, workplaces and other public gathering places. Earlier in January, President Obama announced a series of executive actions, including expanded background checks, meant to reduce gun violence. In Minnesota, a longtime DFL lawmaker is planning to push a new package of gun restrictions that she hopes will be viewed as modest.
"I don't want to put something provocative out there so I focused on common-sense, publicly supported initiatives," said Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, who said her not-yet-finalized proposal is likely to include background checks for private sales, an extension of the current seven-day waiting period, and a requirement that trigger locks be included with all gun purchases.
Gun control advocates in Minnesota have struggled in recent years to make political progress, perennially blocked by a coalition of Republicans and outstate DFLers who represent districts with larger populations of hunters and gun owners. The Minnesota Poll found that 53 percent of respondents either own a firearm or live in a household with someone who does.
There was a stark regional divide on that question, with just 32 percent of Hennepin and Ramsey County households owning a gun, jumping to 55 percent in other suburbs and 69 percent in the rest of the state. Democrats were nearly as likely as Republicans to live in a household with guns, 51 percent vs. 58 percent.
The poll interviewed 800 registered voters in the state between Jan. 18-20, and has a margin of sampling error of 3.5 percentage points, plus or minus. Both land line and cellphone users were polled.
"I'm a gun owner, and I strongly support private citizens having guns," said Tom Craft, a 33-year-old IT consultant from Eagan and a Democrat. "But it's not an easy subject, because effectively our country has made a decision that we are willing to face the occasional mass killing in exchange for the right to keep and bear arms."
Craft said he supports Obama's recent steps on guns but is skeptical they will do much about mass shootings. He thinks that epidemic should be approached more as a mental health crisis.
"Obviously if you think it's OK to go into a building and slaughter innocent people, you have a mental illness. There's no sane reason to do that," Craft said.
Shawn Dunn, a 48-year-old retired firefighter who lives in Chisago City, is opposed to background checks on private sales.
"If I want to sell a gun to my brother I don't think he should have to go through a background check," said Dunn, who now works as a charter boat captain. Dunn, who described himself as conservative, doesn't see fewer guns as a solution to mass killings.
"Look at San Bernardino, look at Paris," Dunn said of two recent cases of mass slaughter. "Even a Glock .40 in someone's back pocket could have stopped a lot of those deaths. It's a deterrent, in my opinion."
That vision of a more heavily armed citizenry is ominous to Heidi Osterhaus, a 33-year-old chef in West Concord, near Rochester.
"Handguns are for protection and rifles are for hunting," said Osterhaus, who said she and her husband are Democrats and hunters. "I don't think we need the rest. I just don't think we need machine guns out in the public. You're not going to shoot a deer with that."
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has long walked a tightrope between support for gun rights while also backing some additional restrictions, including a past failed attempt to extend background checks to private sales. After a mass shooting on an Oregon college campus last fall left nine people dead and more injured, Dayton said he abhorred such shootings, but added that he didn't think stricter gun laws would stop more from happening.
Norton, the DFL lawmaker, said she has hopes for progress this year despite likely opposition from Republicans in the House majority.
"I'm trying to remain optimistic," said Norton, who is retiring after her current term. "If not, we've kept the discussion alive for another year. We need to keep this in the limelight. People are concerned, and by not talking about it, we're not doing anyone any good."
Patrick Condon • 651-925-5049