SHOT IN THE BACK: Who Killed Minnesota’s Gun Safety Law?

Story by Nick Coleman/Videography by Hlee Lee

All winter long, hundreds of gun-carrying opponents of gun safety laws crowded the Minnesota State Capitol, ostentatiously presenting their numbers and their obvious weapons during the difficult debates over proposals to tighten gun safety laws in the state. So I was surprised, upon entering the Gun and Knife Show at the Anoka Armory on Saturday to see this sign on the door:

“NO LOADED GUNS ALLOWED”

Yes, my fellow Minnesotans, you may not take a loaded weapon to a gun show. If you want to do something as reckless as that, you must go to the State Capitol.

Hundreds of guns inside the seat of government — Minnesota is one of only nine states that permits that kind of thing — was the first sign that the push for new gun laws after last December’s massacre of school children in Connecticut was not going to go as planned. Proponents of tighter laws — restrictions on sales of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, and background checks by authorities on all gun buyers — thought they had the upper hand, buoyed by the moral outrage of a stricken nation after the Newtown shootings.

The proponents also thought it would be easy. They were wrong. They were out-organized, out-numbered and out-smarted. They had one other disadvantage: They didn’t have guns.

The result was that any chance of new gun legislation — even a dramatically weakened bill, stripped of all of its strongest measures, that barely made it out of the House Public Safety Committee at the end of March — were shot down. Not by “gun nuts.” Not by Republicans. But by Democrats who control state government and who decided, in the end, to wave a white flag.

As Jimmy Durante used to say, What a revoltin’ development this is.

Gun safety groups are angry, pointing fingers of blame, and dissecting the disarray and mistakes that helped produce the failure to advance the cause. But, in the end, the collapse of gun safety efforts can be laid at the doorsteps of one decisive group: The DFL.

Democratic leaders of the state skedaddled from the issue despite making promises that the weakened bill would be permitted to come to the House floor for a vote. House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, killed that faint hope last week, announcing that he would not let the proposal come up for a vote kill. DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk practically did a jig at the news, relieved at Thissen’s decision. And Gov. Mark Dayton remained silent. As he mostly has done on guns since the start.

States that have adopted significant new gun laws since Sandy Hook — Connecticut and Colorado, to name two — have seen their Democratic governors get deeply involved in the effort to win new laws. Even in Washington, where Obama’s own watered-down gun laws have failed, Democratic leadership was instrumental to the effort. In Minnesota? Not so much.

Check out this story about Colorado’s governor, John Hickenlooper, who signed bills requiring all private and Internet gun purchasers to pass background checks, and banning ammo magazines larger than 15 rounds. And this story about Connecticut’s Gov. Dannell Malloy, who signed the toughest gun law in the country.

Now search for a similar story reflecting Mark Dayton’s leadership on the issue. I’ll wait.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook slaughter, Dayton said he was open-minded about new gun law proposals, but fretted about whether they might “infringe” on the Second Amendment. He offered no suggestions himself. Dayton attended President Obama’s appearance in Minneapolis on Feb. 5, during which the president, backed by hundreds of cops, made an impassioned plea for universal background checks. But two days later, during his State of the State speech, Dayton did not mention the issue. Although he declared, later, that background checks are a good idea, he did not push publicly for the law that was awaiting a vote and which would have made the private sale of guns at gun shows subject to law enforcement checks. Most guns are sold by licensed dealers who must check with authorities to make certain that buyers have no criminal or mental health issues that would bar them from gun ownership. But private parties who buy guns from other private parties — a transaction that often occurs at gun shows — are not required to undergo a background check. That’s what was in the bill that will not get a vote now — background checks which are supported by the vast majority of Minnesotans.

Minnesota is not going to get gun reform this year. And anyone who believes the state will have a better chance in 2014 — an election year — needs a refresher course in Civics.

Meanwhile, the “gun-show loophole” is still wide open, gun sales are booming and gun owners and the gun lobby remain as belligerently opposed to any reforms as ever.

About that loophole: The Anoka Gun Show was a two-day event that attracted more than 1,000 visitors to an exhibition that included more than 100 tables displaying assault rifles, handguns, hatchets, knives and a ton of attitude: A lot of customers seemed to be carrying Bill Clinton’s autobiography and Al Gore’s book about global warming. But not to read: The books had been hollowed out so that they could be used to store handguns inside, on your nightstand.

One young man was walking around the gun show clutching a piece of paper to his chest advertising that he was selling parts for an AR-15, the civilian version of the M-16 military rifle, and a rifle that is similar to the one used in the Sandy Hook slaughter.

Another person, a heavyset middle-aged man from New Brighton who said his name was Rich, was walking between the rows of tables cradling an H&K SR9 , a German rifle formerly banned under the now-defunct federal ban on assault rifles. Pieces of wrinkled note paper were taped over the muzzle of the rifle. On them, written in ink, it said: FOR SALE. Rich is not a licensed firearms dealer and had not rented a table to sit at. He was just hoping to sell the weapon, for $2,500, by displaying it to anyone who might be interested, showing it to people crowding the aisles.

Rich, I asked, if I want to buy that rifle, what do I have to do?

“Well, typically, you’d have to show me some ID,” he said. “But it is kind of a honor system.”

An honor system. Yep. There you have it: The gun-show loophole. Alive and well in Minnesota.

But just because the gun lobby is winning doesn’t mean that its members are letting down their guard against any — and all — measures to improve pubic safety.

“You probably voted for the ass—-,” a surly guy who was leaning against the wall in the Armory said loudly as I passed by him Saturday. I wanted to ask Surly Man which ass—- he had in mind but I didn’t need to: President Obama has never been popular with the National Rifle Association, and his efforts since the Sandy Hook massacre have made him the enemy of many who are convinced it is just a matter of time until Obama starts taking their guns away.

“He wants to totally confiscate our guns,” a Brooklyn Park man named Russ Mosey told me, with utter conviction. “He don’t like anyone having guns. The U.N. wants to try to get our guns because we have too many guns and they want to come in and take over.”

Mosey, 69, may sound a bit extreme in his views but he was far from alone. The owner of the gun show, a fellow named Jim Wright, told me that Obama “might do anything,” using an executive order, for example, to confiscate Americans’ 300 million guns. I told him I didn’t think even a Socialist from Kenya would try a move like that. We got along better after that.

But Wright wouldn’t let The UpTake shoot photos or video inside the gun show, and said he’d have us removed if we caused trouble, and that the media are untrustworthy. “They have done nothing but screw me,” Wright said. “They do not give us justice. They distort every comment.”

I did detect a certain anti-media sentiment in the air: One big dude came outside to confront me and videographer Hlee Lee with this: “The last time I talked to one of you, you edited my words and made me seem like a f—ing ass—-,” he snarled. “I am done talking to you.”

I had never seen The Dude before in my life, but, OK, we have some communication problems between the media, the gun lobby, the gun owners, the gun-safety campaigners and the politicians. It’s a thorny knot. But there isn’t any chance for improvement, not this year. And that’s a real shame. House Speaker Thissen cast his decision not to allow any floor votes on gun legislation — quashing debate and any attempt to get the pols on the record — as a sad necessity brought about by the failure of the interested parties “to reach common ground.”

Thissen tut-tutted as if he were the only adult in a roomful of squabbling kids. But he made few, if any, visible efforts to lead the children out of the sandbox. “Common ground” in the country’s raucous gun debate, as Thissen knows, is noticeably lacking. But common ground is precisely what the president and his Minnesota gun safety allies labored mightily to find, coming as close to finding it, perhaps, as anyone can by agreeing to boil down their proposals to their lowest common denominator: Background checks. Now. Most Americans agree. Let’s git her done.

No, the NRA said. No, the DFL leaders said. My hands are washed, said the governor.

Background checks? Dead and gone, in Congress and Minnesota. Deader in Minnesota, probably.

There is plenty of blame to go around.

But I like what I heard from Jane Kay, head of the Twin Cities’ Chapter of Moms Demand Action, a mass movement gun-safety group that started up after Sandy Hook:

“They’re all chickens.”

Nick Coleman is the Executive Editor of The UpTake
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