Eighteen-year-old Dae’veon has seen everything from assault weapons to handguns, and it wasn’t hard for him to find them. In fact, he’s owned several handguns, shotguns and even a submachine gun, he said. And all of it he bought without a background check, no questions asked.
Last year, Dae’veon, who agreed to talk if his last name was kept anonymous, was caught with a gun and charged with aggravated robbery. That’s when he decided he needed to keep his head down, focus on school and try to turn his life around. But he knows if he wanted to, all he’d have to do is make a quick phone call to get another gun, he said. “It’s like going to the store to buy a pop,” he said. “You just call whoever you know that has a gun and tell them what you want to spend.”
In what now seems like an annual debate, the hot-button topic of gun reform reignited several months ago after another high-profile mass shooting, this one in San Bernardino, California. In response, President Barack Obama issued a series of executive orders to beef up firearm background checks around the country.
The move was greeted with hostility by gun-rights activists, who say the expanded checks would make little difference in preventing firearms from reaching criminals.
Minnesota recently joined the fray as well. Earlier this month, two DFL lawmakers, Sen. Ron Latz and Rep. Dan Schoen, introduced a bill that would require background checks on all gun sales in the state, a measure supported by a number of advocacy groups and law enforcement associations, who say it could help prevent firearms from reaching the wrong hands — like those with criminal backgrounds or minors like Dae’veon. It too has received pushback from gun-rights groups.
And yet, for all the disagreements over whether increased background checks will work, one fact is beyond dispute when it comes to guns in Minnesota. Like it or not, they are remarkably easy to acquire.
‘There’s no law against that’
In Minnesota, to legally buy a gun from a store requires that the purchaser be at least 18 and have a permit issued by the applicant’s county sheriff’s office or police chief — a process that also subjects the applicant to both a state and federal background check.
But here’s the wrinkle: For those who already have a permit and simply want to sell a gun to someone else, there’s no law requiring a background check.
Therein lies the problem, said Heather Martens, the executive director of Protect Minnesota, a group advocating for tightening gun laws. The lack of regulation around private gun sales makes it too easy for those who shouldn’t own guns to be able to get them, a complication that goes beyond the oft-cited issue of gun show sales.
“If you want to fill the trunk of your car with guns and drive to any street, park there and start selling guns, you can,” Martens said. “There’s no law against that.”
Technology has made things even easier. Many individuals also sell their guns online on websites like Armslist.com, where all people need to do is create a free account to gain access to people selling firearms all around the state.
Like Craigslist, Armslist connects sellers with individual buyers who can contact them through the website. After connecting them, the individuals can go about their transaction in any way they see fit, so long as it doesn’t cross state boundaries. A search on the website shows almost 3,000 guns for sale in Minnesota alone, with prices ranging between $175 for a shotgun, to $1,300 for an assault weapon.
Where guns come from; where they go
Marcel Urman, who now helps youth find employment on the north side for the nonprofit Emerge, said he ran with gangs back in the ‘90s when there were four or five large gangs in Minneapolis. Back then, the gangs would rob gun stores then disseminate them throughout the rest of the city, he said, so if you wanted a gun you had limited options.
But according to Dae’veon, the gun market today is much more decentralized, with many buyers and sellers and spreading mostly through word of mouth. And once you’ve found a connection, he said, it’s like buying anything else off Craigslist.
Nineteen-year-old John, who did not want to be identified because of safety concerns, said the largest stockpiles of guns for sale that he has seen were out in the suburbs, not the cities.
John said he knows some people who steal guns from houses or stores, but a lot of the guns that make their way to Minneapolis’ streets are purchased legally. “Some people who’ve got gun licenses, they’ll sell them, then report it stolen,” he said.
Martens said legally purchased guns remain a main channel for firearms syphoning into Minneapolis.
But Minneapolis Police Department Deputy Chief Bruce Folkens said there’s no single source attributed to the firearms confiscated in the city each year. “For years now, we’ve traced every gun that we recover,” Folkens said. “We do look at where these guns are coming from … it’s across the map.”
What is clear, Folkens said, is where the guns are ending up. According to MPD data, around 700 guns are confiscated each year, and more than half those confiscations occur in north Minneapolis’ Fourth Precinct.
Folkens said the city has ramped up their gun investigations this year to try and quell those high numbers, including adding four more officers to their Violent Crimes Investigation Team last November, bumping the shooting investigation unit up to six officers.
But Martens said that’s not enough, that sellers are incentivized to sell those guns to areas stricken by high poverty and crime. “How can you stop a behavior if it’s not even illegal?” she asked.
Joining the debate
Marit Brock, with the Minnesota chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said most Minnesotans approve of background checks on private gun sales.
According to a survey done by Public Policy Polling in 2015 of Minnesotans who voted, 84 percent of them support universal background checks on gun sales — compared to 11 percent who opposed.
Despite those poll numbers, Brock said, most Minnesotans don’t know about the so-called “gun show loophole,” which refers to private gun sales that don’t require background checks or federal licenses. “So, closing the gun shows sales loophole and requiring background checks on all gun sales is an important priority for us, here in Minnesota.”
Andrew Rothman, president of Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, a gun-rights advocacy group, disagrees. He said enforcing a universal background check would merely create a federal registry of firearms and do nothing to stop criminals from obtaining guns both legally and illegally. “When someone intends to commit a violent crime, the last thing on their mind is making sure that they don’t commit a paperwork violation,” he said. “Criminals will continue to buy and sell firearms illegally.”
Another issue with instituting a universal background check, Rothman said, is that creating a registry for all guns amounts to universal surveillance, and often leads to an increase in confiscations. “Having the registry of firearms is the presumption that we just haven’t committed a crime yet but we better keep an eye on you,” he said.
Rothman said most gun owners are law-abiding and that most gun-related violence is happening in urban areas like Chicago and Minneapolis, where gun violence is related to drug trades and other illegal activity. Instead of gun-ownership, lawmakers should look at increasing the penalty for repeat offenders of gun violence and illegal possession, he said.
But Martens said not enough responsibility is being placed on those who sell firearms irresponsibly, while too much blame is being placed on communities of color when it comes to gun violence.
“The youth of Minneapolis are not manufacturing guns and bringing them into the city,” she said. “Somebody else is doing that.”
Martens said many people, especially in rural areas of Minnesota, don’t understand the different circumstances in the city and these clashing cultural attitudes are preventing people in Minnesota from finding common ground on gun legislation.
And while policy makers fight over reform, Martens said, it’s the youth who ultimately suffer. “We actually all have a responsibility to keep guns out of the hands of kids,” she said. “And often we’re faced with blame of the kids themselves.”