State is torn on gun proposals

Hearings last week drew hundreds to the Capitol for gun law proposals.

Jessica Lee

From the University of Minnesota to Washington D.C., gun control is taking center stage.

State legislators heard a slew of bills last week in the House of Representatives that would tighten gun regulations, and last Monday, President Barack Obama came to north Minneapolis to tout his gun proposals.

The increased focus on firearms comes after several mass shootings in the past year that have drawn the attention of legislators and the public.

In November, Mageen Caines, a University graduate student in Community Health Promotion, surveyed students about their attitudes toward guns on campus.

The study found about two-thirds of students surveyed favored the current University policy, which bans guns except for a few exemptions.

But after the Sandy Hook shooting in mid-December and recent gun control bills, Caines repeated the study and found about 86 percent now favored the same no-gun policy.

“What we’d like to do with this data is reinforce that we have a strong opinion against wanting to have guns on campus,” Caines said. “U of M students don’t want exposure [to guns], and they don’t feel safe if their friends have that exposure.”

The state Legislature is torn on the issue, with officials from both parties influenced as much by geography as political association.

Three back-to-back hearings in the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee last week gathered hundreds of supporters and opponents to listen to bills ranging from mandating mental health screenings to banning the sale of new assault weapons.

Some DFLers have pushed a multitude of legislation they hope to package as a comprehensive “gun-violence protection bill” in the coming weeks, said Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, at a committee hearing last Thursday.

But others in the party aren’t sold.

“I’m just not convinced,” said Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth. “I haven’t seen the evidence that these gun control measures are going to achieve our goals.”

Marquart, a gun owner, has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association since his second election in 2002.

Marquart, like some other rural DFLers, isn’t on board with the wide-sweeping gun control proposals.

He said he isn’t supporting any of the Minnesota gun control bills because he views guns as tools for hunting, recreation and
protection.

Proponent and author of gun control legislation, Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said she doesn’t like the idea that her grandchildren are fearful of shooters when they are doing daily activities, like attending afternoon matinees.

“Something major is happening in this country,” she said.

Hausman is proposing two of the 11 bills discussed last week that would prohibit purchasing new assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in Minnesota.

She said the phrase “shall not be infringed” in the Second Amendment is “shouted over and over,” but one part is ignored — “a well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state.”

“We’re not talking well-regulated militia here, so I think it’s been such a distortion of the Second Amendment,” she said.

Rick Wilder, manager of Metro Gun Club in Blaine, Minn., said he can’t imagine a world without “self-protective” weapons.

“If firearms weren’t available, wouldn’t there be knives or bats or some other methods for violence?” he said.

Wilder said his club gives lessons and has police officers and NRA-trained overseers that teach the ethics of firearm safety.

He said he’s against the proposed restrictions and regulations because guns are used more often for recreation than for violence.

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said gun control has irked constituents of his rural Minnesota district more than any other issue he’s dealt with since being in office.

“Everyone from some of our county sheriffs to some of our local police officers, down to the sportsmen,” Gazelka said. “They’re all just saying ‘Don’t do this, it’s not going to solve anything.’”

Marquart said rural legislators from both parties are not as keen on gun control because guns are less taboo in their home districts.

“Many of us that are rural legislators, we grew up being trained how to maintain a gun properly, gun safety and hunting out in the woods,” Gazelka said. “We don’t have the fear of guns because it’s a tool that needs to be handled properly.

Zachary Sudman, president of the University’s Hunting and Fishing student group and a civil engineering senior, said he thinks proposals to regulate guns further have good intentions but that they aren’t going to have dramatic effects.

“No one wants gun violence,” Sudman said, “but as far as how successful [the bills] are going to be, I don’t think they are going to curb any gun violence.”

‘Mental health first’

Gun control dissenters argue that legislation needs to focus more on mental health and less on regulating firearms.

“Ultimately, these are very troubled people, and it doesn’t really matter what kind of gun or knife or whatever — they are going to be violent,” Gazelka said. “That’s why I’m not advocating that we try to somehow reign in those law-abiding citizens that have guns. I just don’t think that’s where the problem lies.”

One bill proposed last Wednesday, sponsored by Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, would expand mental health screenings for people applying for firearm permits in Minnesota.

Marquart also stressed the importance of mental health over gun legislation.

“Everyone is passionate about this issue, and anyone can have a strong opinion on this,” he said, “But I think we need to concentrate on mental health first.”

On the federal level, mental health is also a major concern.

Obama, University police Chief Greg Hestness and many other city officials met in north Minneapolis early last week to articulate ideas to keep weapons away from people who are mentally ill, as well as other strategies to prevent gun violence.

More than a quarter of students at the University’s Twin Cities campus reported being diagnosed with a mental illness within their lifetime, according the Boynton Health Service 2010 College Student Health Survey.

The public safety committee didn’t vote last week on any of the proposals.

Later this month, the Senate Judiciary Committee is planning two days of hearings to discuss similar legislation.