OPINION | Gun control efforts get shot down

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On Sept. 27, 2012, a recently terminated employee at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis went out to his car for a handgun, then returned to the workplace and gunned down Reuven Rahamim, the company’s founder, four other employees and a UPS driver who happened to be making a delivery. The shooter, Andrew Engeldinger, then shot himself to death.

People in the Twin Cities were shocked by the horrific mass murder; and the local Jewish community mourned the loss of Rahamim, an Israeli native who found success in America, and Rami Cooks, who also was from Israel.

Less than three months later, Adam Lanza murdered his mother in their Newtown, Conn., home, then proceeded to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he blasted his way through a glass door with his mother’s Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, then proceeded to murder 20 six- and seven-year-old children, and six adult teachers and staff members.

The carnage at Sandy Hook sparked a renewed national debate on gun control. Unfortunately, it seems that legislative gun control efforts, in Minnesota and on the federal level, are falling far short of popular expectations. Proposals in Congress to ban certain military-style assault weapons — which were subject to a previous ban that expired in 2004 — and high-capacity ammunition clips have foundered in the face of opposition by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun rights groups.

The issues surrounding gun violence in America are myriad and complex; but certain measures, such as background checks for gun buyers in certain situations — at gun shows, for example — are overwhelmingly popular. Writing in The New Yorker magazine this week, Margaret Talbot points out that this particular reform “is supported by 90 percent of Americans and by 85 percent of gun owners.” She adds that the NRA supported these expanded background checks as recently as 1999.

However, Congress apparently is heedless of the popular will in these matters, and, as Talbot notes, only four states have managed “to move forward with gun control laws: New York, Colorado, and, last week, Connecticut and Maryland.”

In Minnesota, Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the state House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, held three days of hearings on various gun control measures. As I wrote in a recent editorial, the NRA and the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance in Minnesota flooded the committee hearing with pro-gun partisans.

Paymar told me this week that he crafted the Gun Violence Prevention Act, which would provide sheriffs and police departments “with more latitude to deny a permit to purchase a handgun or a semi-automatic to those individuals who law enforcement deemed were a danger to themselves or others.”

The bill also would have increased penalties for individuals making “straw purchases” of guns, which are turned over to criminals ineligible to possess such weapons. “The centerpiece of the bill was universal background checks,” Paymar explained. “That had the support of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, and the majority of the public, if you looked at all the polling data.”

But the proposal to impose some commonsense gun control, in the aftermath of the Accent Signage and Sandy Hook mass murders, was “basically sabotaged” by legislators opposed to universal background checks, said Paymar. The measure “would have died in committee,” according to Paymar, because all of the Republicans were opposed to it, and they were joined by two DFLers.

An alternative bill, which Paymar said would do “very little” in the way of gun control, was drafted by Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, in cooperation with Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, a former police chief who is basically the NRA’s representative on the House committee.

So, it’s the NRA’s world — we just live in it, hoping that we won’t be shot.

There is still some hope that the Legislature will do something sensible to tamp down the proliferation of guns in society. Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, was able to pass the companion bill, the Senate version of Paymar’s bill. So, Paymar’s hope now rests on getting the “watered-down” House bill (which still included a partial plug of the gun show loophole) and the Senate version passed by both bodies; then a conference committee could be convened to draft a revised bill, which could “resurrect the background check language.”

As the legislative session heads down the homestretch, Paymar says that it has been “upsetting” to see the NRA and its affiliates “put out so much misinformation about universal background checks…. They will say that any legislation that deals with gun control is an infringement on Second Amendment rights — and they’re wrong. The Supreme Court has stated quite clearly that states and Congress can regulate guns.” Paymar points out that certain gun purchases — “at Walmart or Cabela’s” — require background checks; his proposed legislation would extend this to purchases at gun shows and private transactions, with exemptions for hunting rifles and transactions between relatives.

For his efforts to protect the public, Paymar has been subject to vilification and threats.

“I’ve received the most vicious messages from people from around the state, calling me a traitor, questioning my patriotism, vile language, veiled threats on my life,” he recalled.

Some gun aficionados have warned Paymar that “a war” will soon be breaking out, “if we’re successful in passing any kind of gun control legislation.” And he notes that the “same inflammatory rhetoric” is accompanying the congressional debate over gun control, “which is why they’re considering a very watered-down bill.”