OPINION | Minnesota confronts guns


In early January, state Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, sent me an e-mail, complementing my editorial about the horrific mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Paymar wrote that, as the incoming chair of the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, he planned to hold hearings “on gun control, school security, lack of resources for families with mental health problems, the need for training at identifying people with domestic abuse backgrounds and troubled employees, etc.”

I resolved to track Paymar’s committee hearings and wrestle further with the problem of gun violence in society.

On Feb. 5, I drove to the Capitol for the first hearing before Paymar’s committee. On the way to St. Paul, I listened to an interview with the legislator on Minnesota Public Radio. The radio host kept mentioning the hearing set to begin at 10 a.m., so I got the idea that there would be a crowd. In fact, more than 500 people crowded into the State Office Building for the committee meeting. The throng formed a line that went from the door of the meeting room through all of the basement hallways and wrapped back again.

I got a press pass from the office of the House Sergeant-at-Arms, and waded back through the crowd, which was comprised mainly of gun aficionados. They were identifiable by their backwoods-type attire, NRA caps, and large bright yellow buttons emblazoned with: “I support the 2nd Amendment.” A much smaller fraction in attendance was opposed to guns. They wore larger black and white stickers that read, “Minnesotans Against Being Shot.”

The crowd of gun lovers filled up the hearing room, and two overflow rooms equipped with closed circuit broadcasts of the hearing.

In his introductory comments, Paymar explained that no votes would be taken on the dozen or so bills to be discussed over three days of hearings. He said that there would be an opportunity to debate, take amendments and then the varied measures would be rolled into an omnibus gun control bill.

Paymar, in a plea for civility around this contentious issue, suggested that “we all have a piece of the truth, and no side has all the answers.”

Then he allowed his ideological counterpart, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who wore a bright red, official NRA tie and an assault rifle lapel pin, to deliver some remarks. Cornish, a former police chief, noted that he and Paymar were on “absolute opposite sides of this issue.”

The first bill to be considered was H.F. 237, a measure authored by Paymar, which would modify state laws regarding access to firearms by people who have been committed to a treatment facility for mental illness or chemical dependency. Another provision would require private pistol and rifle transfers to be routed through a licensed firearms dealer, who would have to follow federal requirements, including performance of an FBI background check through the federal National Instant Check System (NICS).

Paymar, who said that his bill “plugs several loopholes” and disqualifies certain individuals from buying a gun, brought forward a number of police chiefs and other representatives of law enforcement groups to testify in favor of the proposal.

For example, Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said that H.F. 237 is “not about guns,” but rather preventing criminals and unbalanced individuals from getting guns.

Flaherty said that the bill would close the “gun show loophole,” where guns are sold out of the trunks of cars and buyers circumvent any “police background check.”

“We are not doing enough to protect the citizens of our state from gun violence,” Flaherty concluded.

Also testifying were the police chiefs from Brooklyn Park, Champlin, Brooklyn Center and Rogers. And Sami Rahamim.

Rahamim is the son of Reuven Rahamim, the late owner of Accent Signage Systems. On Sept. 27, 2012, a disgruntled former employee opened fire with a handgun, killing Rahamim and five others, and then turned the gun on himself.

“Nothing prepares you to hear the news that your father has been murdered by a gun,” Sami Rahamim told the committee members. The killings at Accent Signage, one of the worst workplace shootings in Minnesota history, left 15 children without fathers, he said.

Rahamim’s father came here from Israel and built a successful business. “My dad lived the American dream, but died the American nightmare,” said Rahamim, who had attended a Minneapolis meeting on gun violence with President Obama on the previous day.

Then the gun rights proponents had their say.

Andrew Rothman, vice president of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, pointed out that “criminals purchase guns from other criminals,” so these laws are more or less irrelevant.

The group’s president, Joseph Olson, a professor of law at Hamline University School of Law, decried any “universal registration scheme.” Paperwork from such a system will be kept forever, according to Olson, who said that “when registration comes, confiscation does not come far behind it.”

These folks are afraid that Obama, and Paymar, are coming for their guns.

However, public opinion is aroused, especially after the Sandy Hook massacre, and people want something done to tamp down crazy gun violence. The vast majority of Americans favor background checks for gun buyers. The more problematic issue is how to keep deranged individuals from committing carnage with their handguns and rifles.

On Monday night, as if to underscore what we face with gun violence, a 34-year-old man armed with a semiautomatic pistol walked about in Oakdale, a suburb east of St. Paul, randomly shooting at passing cars. Several of the bullets hit nine-year-old Devin Aryal, who was riding in the backseat of the car driven by his mother, Melissa. Devin died Monday night at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. His mother was wounded, along with another person.

Rep. Michael Paymar deserves our support as he and his colleagues try to rein in gun violence. The NRA and their minions — including the corporations reaping huge profits from guns and ammo — have had their day. We are not living in some Wild West fantasy, although sometimes it looks like a lawless frontier out there; it is time for rational action to deal with the complex problem of too many guns and too much senseless violence.