It is the issue that dumped a promising liberal gubernatorial contender, continues to divide and intimidate Democrats, and has driven a wedge between law enforcement leaders and Republicans. Guns.

Minnesota has a long and contentious history with the politics of personal weaponry -- from the "Dump Spannaus" campaign against gun-control advocate Warren Spannaus a generation ago to the fight over concealed weapons permits from 1996 to 2003.

As the forces gather for another round in response to the Connecticut school massacre two weeks ago, veterans of past battles see no evidence that the two sides have achieved anything close to a consensus. "I think that change is going to be extremely difficult," said former House Speaker Bob Vanasek, a lobbyist who has been involved in many of the big debates, generally on the gun-control side.

"What could make a difference is that with this latest tragedy, you couldn't dream up a worse scenario of what could happen," he said.

But laws that appear reasonable to gun-control supporters, such as bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, are anathema to the NRA and local gun-rights groups, who oppose such laws as ineffective and as a threat to personal freedoms.

The Legislature's leading gun-rights activist, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, and the state's longest-standing gun-rights lobbyist, Hamline law Prof. Joseph Olson, argue for arming teachers rather than limiting access to firepower for everyone. "The bottom line is what stops these killings is counter-fire," Olson said.

A history lesson

As President Obama and Congress search for a proper federal response, Minnesota is expected to discuss a range of options offered by both sides. If history is any guide, the going will be rough.

Spannaus, now 82, was Minnesota's attorney general when he developed and helped pass the state's landmark 1975 Gun Control Act. Its waiting period and background checks earned Spannaus a special place in the hearts of gun-rights activists.

They circulated pictures of his face behind a bull's-eye, and the "Dump Spannaus" slogan graced car bumpers up north when he ran for governor in 1982. He was defeated in a DFL primary by Rudy Perpich and never held office again.

The success of "Dump Spannaus" stands as a cautionary tale for gun-control-supporting DFLers who run statewide. Tony Bouza's call for strict gun laws doomed his 1994 gubernatorial candidacy, and the losing DFL gubernatorial candidates in 1998 and 2002 -- Hubert Humphrey III and Roger Moe -- emphasized their opposition to the NRA-backed concealed weapons bill.

"I've never regretted that," Spannaus said of his gun-control advocacy. He said while his law applied only to handguns, he was falsely accused of restricting hunting rifles and shotguns. He believes the NRA continues to misrepresent the issue and "bully the people in the Congress."

The tide began to turn against gun control in the mid-80s, when the Legislature prohibited the Twin Cities from having tougher gun laws than the rest of the state. A political consequence was that urban DFLers, with the most gun crime and support for gun control, were at the mercy of a coalition of rural DFLers and the GOP, who tended to side with the NRA and to represent low-crime areas.

In 1989, in the wake of a school shooting in Stockton, Calif., former St. Paul Rep. Howard Orenstein, with support from the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, sought to ban the sale of assault rifles, but succeeded only in subjecting these weapons to the same waiting period and background checks that applied to handguns.

Olson, who is president of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, was active in fighting gun-control bills in the early 1990s. "We managed to beat bill after bill after bill," he said. The gun-rights lobby, nationally and in Minnesota, became a potent force, with grass-roots support and emotional commitment that liberal organizations envied.

"The gun is an essential part of American history, it is an essential part of American liberty," Olson said in explaining the passion that motivates his side.

Its staying power was on display from 1996 to 2003, when the Legislature debated and ultimately passed a bill allowing wider access to permits to carry weapons for adults with clean records and the proper training. The number of permits grew from one for every 441 Minnesotans in 2002 to one for every 46 Minnesotans currently. Excluding those Minnesotans under 21, who are ineligible for permits, the current ratio is one permit per 33 adults.

Playing defense

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, a gun-rights supporter who supported concealed-carry and worked to defeat gun-control measures, said the continued interest in hunting and shooting sports, as well as the state's experience with the concealed weapons program, has turned the public away from gun-control measures.

"I think those days are over," he said.

Gun-control groups and police organizations have recently been playing defense.

In 2011, they blocked an attempt by Cornish to do away with the Spannaus background checks and rely instead on the federal system. This past session, the Legislature passed an expanded self-defense law sought by the NRA. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the bill, citing police officers' concerns for their safety.

Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, incoming chair of the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, noted that the self-defense law garnered 14 DFL votes in the House in addition to all GOP votes -- a measure of how strong the support is in the chamber for the NRA positions. Within the Minnesota Republican Party, support for the NRA position is nearly unanimous -- there was only one GOP vote against the self-defense law in the two chambers, and that by a state senator, Geoff Michel, who chose not to seek re-election.

Paymar calls this a "surrender mentality" to the NRA and hopes the post-Newtown political climate is different. "How many incidents do we have to have around the country, with assault rifles and these horrific incidents, before people say the NRA has one agenda and one agenda only -- and it's to not adopt any laws, regardless of how sensible they are?" he said.

Paymar and the gun-control group Protect Minnesota will be trying to push the argument in the direction of stronger controls, hoping gun owners can separate themselves from the positions of the NRA. Limmer and Olson will be asking for a harder look at seriously mentally ill people among us, rather than the weapons they use for their evil deeds.

Meanwhile, the bookends of Minnesota's long and winding gun-law history -- the 1975 Spannaus gun-control law and the 2003 permit to carry law that Olson and the NRA battled for -- remain the laws of the land.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042