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Why Minnesota DFLers failed the gun-violence test

MinnPost file photo by James Nord
The absence of any critical mass of minority legislators in St. Paul makes it significantly easier for DFL leaders to brush aside the issue of gun violence — which is exactly what they did last session.

Last month, Americans were horrified yet again by a mass shooting, this time at the Washington Navy Yard. Recently, Mayors Against Illegal Guns sponsored a rally on the National Mall, signaling that the push for national and state gun-violence prevention legislation, which failed so dismally in Congress and in Minnesota last spring, is gearing up again.

Rebecca Lowen

Given the divided control of Congress and the perpetual deadlock that has resulted, we expect little to happen at the national level this year. We also have our doubts about the prospect for success in Minnesota.

We come to this conclusion with sadness. Last spring, we participated in the effort to advance gun-violence prevention in Minnesota. With many others, we held meetings, rallied supporters, spent long days at the Capitol, tracked the fate of various gun bills, and spoke before House and Senate committees considering bills to mandate universal criminal background checks for gun purchases and to limit the size of gun magazines.

We are currently out of the fray, in the middle of a six-month stay in Oslo, Norway. With distance, we’ve reflected on our state’s failure but also on the successful passage of gun-violence prevention laws elsewhere. Why did Minnesota, unlike Connecticut, New York, Maryland and Colorado, fail to pass meaningful legislation on the gun issue in 2013?

Examining potential factors

Doug Rossinow

One answer is that gun-violence prevention got slighted in Minnesota because of a crowded legislative agenda. A comparison with successful states shows this to be wrong. In Colorado and Maryland, as in Minnesota, the Democrats controlled the governorship and both houses of the legislature, so these comparisons are especially apt. As in Minnesota, the legislatures in Colorado and Maryland addressed marriage inequality as well as gun regulation and delivered on both. (A constitutional amendment in Colorado took full marriage equality off the table, but the legislature, with strong support from Colorado’s LGBT community, passed a civil union law.) And these were but two of the progressive achievements in those states last year. Colorado passed a raft of major laws, including in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. The same was true in Maryland, where the state outlawed the death penalty and expanded voter rights. These achievements put to shame the results of last year’s session in Minnesota, even when one takes fully into account the historic victory of marriage equality.

Another explanation is that Colorado had to act, after a horrific mass shooting in Aurora that left 12 dead. But this is insufficient for understanding what happened last spring. Maryland’s Democrats acted in the absence of a gun massacre. And recall that Minnesota endured its own gun rampages, in 2005 in Red Lake, and at Accent Signage in 2012, with zero impact on gun laws.

Evidence indicates that women, African-Americans and Latinos disproportionately favor gun-violence prevention laws. Could their representation — or lack thereof — in the state legislatures be a significant factor in affecting the outcomes in the different states?

In the case of gender, the answer would seem to be “no.” Although Colorado’s legislature underrepresents women by only 7.8 percent (and the Democratic legislative leadership there overrepresents women by 42 percent), the figures for Maryland and Minnesota are comparable, with women making up about one third of the legislature in each state.

But for race, the evidence suggests the answer is “yes.” We are aware that our state is very white. But it is not much whiter than Colorado, where the combined percentage of African-Americans and Latinos in the population is 13 percent. (The figure for Minnesota is 10 percent.

Comparisons of the racial composition of each of these states with that of its legislature reveals a legislative underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos, combined, of 26 percent in the Colorado legislature, of 34 percent in Maryland, and of a whopping 75 percent in Minnesota.

Treated as an annoyance, not a priority

The absence of any critical mass of minority legislators in St. Paul makes it significantly easier for DFL leaders to brush aside the issue of gun violence — which is exactly what they did last session. They treated the issue as an annoyance, not a priority.

A state-to-state comparison also shows that the role of top leadership on this issue is critical. Both Colorado and Maryland benefited from strong leaders at the top who showed passion and commitment on the issue of gun-violence prevention. Governors John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Martin O’Malley of Maryland defined this as a top priority. Hickenlooper made the issue a personal cause. Colorado’s Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader both went to the mat to achieve the changes they believed in. The leaders in Maryland and Colorado also demonstrated political savvy and strength in holding their caucuses together on crucial votes.

In contrast, Minnesota’s Democratic leadership behaved timidly at best. Gov. Mark Dayton said as little as possible and did nothing at all on the gun-violence issue. The word went out that the budget was his priority. Colorado and Maryland also passed budgets last spring, but they managed to do many other things as well.

‘The votes just aren’t there’

Top legislative leaders here would not take on the issue. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk voiced his personal hostility to gun regulation. House Speaker Paul Thissen expressed his personal support for reforms such as universal background checks. But he and other liberal DFLers shrugged aside gun-violence prevention advocates, saying, essentially, “The votes just aren’t there.” It was as if they were mere bystanders in the legislative process, backbenchers rather than leaders.

Behind the scenes, Rep. Michael Paymar worked doggedly to shepherd a background-check bill through his House Committee on Public Safety, only to be undercut by one of the DFLers on his committee, Debra Hilstrom, who reached out to the NRA for help in drafting a rival bill. With no caucus discipline in evidence, Paymar was forced to come to terms with Hilstrom, and the committee ultimately passed a much weakened bill. Paymar accepted this compromise on the promise from Thissen that the bill would be put to a floor vote. Thissen, however, broke his promise.

What explains DFL leaders’ fearful response to an issue that is becoming one of the great moral concerns of our time? What keeps them from marshaling legislative support for a proposal such as universal background checks, which polls show an overwhelming majority of Minnesotans support? Some DFLers hold to the belief that a Democrat must oppose all gun regulations in order to win statewide office. Both Bakk and Thissen have run for governor before, and may do so again; Dayton is up for re-election in 2014 and Hilstrom is running for Minnesota secretary of state.

DFL leaders buckled before the NRA and its backers

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We know anti-reform forces in out-state Minnesota are formidable. We saw this up-close at the Capitol last year, when the NRA flooded government buildings with busloads of angry men, some of them probably armed. Similar things happened in Colorado. Yet DFL leaders buckled before the NRA and its backers without a fight. Partly this is because the representation of rural parts of our state is exaggerated in the Minnesota Legislature — the flip side of the underrepresentation of people of color. And partly it is due to the careerism and culture of excessive caution that mark the DFL.

Supporting gun-violence legislation can carry costs; two Colorado state senators recently lost their seats in recall elections. Multiple issues led to the defeat of Angela Giron. But clearly, Senate President John Morse paid a price for the key role he played in passing gun-reform legislation. Undoubtedly he would prefer to have won. But he has said: “I have no regrets: I simply cannot accept that notion that it would have been acceptable for Colorado to do nothing to stem the tide of mass violence.”

Sadly for our state, DFL leaders did feel it was acceptable to do nothing. We would like to think things will be different this year, but the factors preventing success last year remain.

Rebecca Lowen and Doug Rossinow teach history at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. They are currently living in Norway, where Rossinow is a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Oslo.


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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by tiffany vanvorken on 10/04/2013 - 06:00 am.

    gun control

    the fact that these “navy yard” type shootings exist is the reason why we don’t want any gun laws for decent people.
    I don’t have a gun, i am considering getting one.

    • Submitted by Andrew Richner on 10/04/2013 - 08:46 am.

      Well, that’s just it

      Background checks for gun purchases prevent decent people from getting guns as much as the eye test prevents sighted people from getting driver’s licenses.

  2. Submitted by jason myron on 10/04/2013 - 08:45 am.

    Decent people?

    Exactly how do you determine that, Tiffany….political affiliation? Everyone is a “law abiding citizen” until they choose not to be.

  3. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 10/04/2013 - 09:23 am.

    Interesting perspective

    While I am sure the authors have made valid points, I don’t think they have a complete picture. I grew up in Maryland and moved to Minnesota decades ago. I too have a very strong commitment to eliminating gun violence.

    One of the differences between the 2 states is the acceptance of a gun culture. In Minnesota governors are proudly photographed leading hunting expeditions for deer, pheasants, etc. Gun use is not considered a fringe activity or something confined to inner city gangs and deranged people,but a good family bonding opportunity. Many state agencies work to develop habitat ideal for folks with guns to shoot in.

    Blame cannot fall solely on the dfl. Was there even one Republican legislator who was willing to make minor concessions or work in ANY way to increase safety by reducing gun violence? The Republican caucus and leadership actually spent the session supporting bullying in schools.

    Before we can ask legislators to take bold, unpopular stands we need to provide them with broad, enthusiastic support. I am sure when the authors return refreshed from their sabbatical they will be able to once again work to build that consensus in Minnesota.

    • Submitted by Bryan Strawser on 10/04/2013 - 10:49 am.

      “Gun use is not considered a fringe activity or something confined to inner city gangs and deranged people,but a good family bonding opportunity.”

      Let me make sure I have this right.

      Gun use is a fringe activity. Or it’s a hobby only engaged in by inner city gangs and deranged people?

      Did I understand you correctly?

  4. Submitted by Bryan Strawser on 10/04/2013 - 09:36 am.

    Lack of Popular Support

    Gun Control in Minnesota failed because it completely lacked any sort of public support. On an average day, 800ish opponents of gun control showed up for a committee meeting – an average of around 15 gun control supporters showed up.

    Popular support simply does not exist for the sort of anti-gun legislation that Representative Paymar attempted at the legislature. This is amplified by the fact that the legislation proposed would have done NOTHING to lower gun violence or keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and those that seek to do harm.

    Hilstrom’s originally proposed bill had the right elements in it – a focus on criminals, dealing with mental health records, enhanced penalities — Paymar refused to hear the bill – and the gun control groups opposed it. Yet these strategies have worked effectively in many other states.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/04/2013 - 01:32 pm.

      Except that most gun deaths

      come at the hands of friends and family (or suicide), not criminals or the mentally ill.
      Time to get back into the real world.

  5. Submitted by Rob Doar on 10/04/2013 - 10:16 am.


    “when the NRA flooded government buildings with busloads of angry men, some of them probably armed.”

    You’re so wrong it hurts. By saying “busloads” are you going on the record that the NRA bussed people in? Please clarify.

    Or is that just a lie veiled as “creative journalism?”

    Were you even there? Did you see NRA shirts everywhere? No. You saw Maroon “Gun Owners Civil Right Alliance” shirts. Grass roots. Men, Women, and Children interested in protecting their rights, and passing legislation to impact criminals, not the law abiding. None of them angry.

    Why would the anti-gun members STOP Hilstrom’s bill? If they wanted to “do something” why not start where we could all agree?

    You imply the NRA shanghaied the meeting, but ignore that the grass roots of Minnesotans showed up and made their presence known. Your bias is evident you it’s clear you were absent from the hearings, either in presence or mind.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/04/2013 - 12:49 pm.

    Irony is so ironic

    The authors mention that they believe that the lack of women and minorities in the legislative process is instrumental in the lack of more stringent gun control measures being passed.

    Ironically, gun control laws were first passed in this country after the civil war to prevent former slaves (read “black people”) from acquiring weapons in the fear former slave owners and overseers would become victims of gun violence committed by newly-freed men.

    Fast forward 145 years and the Supreme Court ruled that Chicago’s handgun ban violated the right to keep and bear arms. In McDonald v. City of Chicago, the Court ruled that McDonald, a black man, was being denied the right to defend himself in a neighborhood rife with gun toting thugs who had threatened him and his family on numerous occasions.

    So in a sense, black people have been at the center of the gun control debate over the years, but not in the way you’ve hoped.

    Finally, I tell every woman I know to arm herself, get training and get a permit to carry it openly. If the cultural expectation was that females in our society were probably armed, the incidences of violence against women would drop to zero. There’s nothing like the “great equalizer” to level the playing field, I always say. Funny how the liberals would prefer you just call the cops after the fact.

  7. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/04/2013 - 01:12 pm.

    Not fair

    It is easy for urban legislators in strong DFL districts like Michael Paymar (who is my rep and a good guy) to support gun control. It is much tougher for DFLers in outstate swing districts to do so. Whether its popular support or just the NRA, gun control is a tough issue. Many of those outstate DFLers showed tremendous courage and put their seats at risk by voting for gay marriage. I think the leadership realized it was too much to ask to vote for gun control as well. Even as someone who supports reasonable gun control measures, I am not going to criticize these legislators for what happened.

  8. Submitted by Sue Halligan on 10/04/2013 - 02:14 pm.

    Gun Culture

    Was I the only person horrified by the actions of police yesterday in Washington D.C., when a speeding car was chased by two bands of gun-shooting law enforcers to make her stop? It turns out she was unarmed. She was killed. There was a 1-year-old baby in the car who by some miracle escaped injury. This kind of over-reaction with firearms has become commonplace, often in cases like these using “national security” (she had tried to ram a security barrier with her car) as the justification by the police and/or military. And the solution is we should all carry guns?

    Too bad Trayvon Martin wasn’t carrying.

    • Submitted by Kevin Vick on 10/05/2013 - 06:33 am.


      Please do your fact checking. A motor vehicle, by law, qualifies as a deadly weapon. To say she was “unarmed” is simply not true. The facts in the matter need to play out. You’re jumping to conclusions.

  9. Submitted by Kevin Vick on 10/04/2013 - 03:15 pm.

    Fact Check Please

    Pew Research and the Department of Justice have recently released studies showing U.S. gun homicide is down 39% – 49% over the past twenty years. It also shows overall gun crime down 69% during that same time frame.

    The legislation that was put forth didn’t address the core issues of gun crime. It simply was “feel good, do anything” measures to appease the uniformed and/or anti-gun constituency. I attended and testified at the very hearings this article is speaking of. My testimony asked for improvements to the integrity of our current background check system, aggressive enforcement of laws that are already on the books, and curbing the continual release of re-offending gun criminals into our society. These are the keys to the effective reduction of gun crime.

    Suggesting that “universal” background checks would deter gun crimes is like thinking if you just fish faster you’ll catch more fish. The Navy Yard shooter passed a NICS Federal Background check and held a Secret government clearance. His criminal background included being arrested and charged twice on gun violations that were never prosecuted. Because our criminal justice system refuses to prosecute gun crimes he was allowed to legally purchase a shotgun.

    What the authors aren’t acknowledging are the pieces of legislation that did go into effect this past session. The state is now going back through criminal and mental adjudication records and entering them into the NICS background check system. Something they’ve supposed to be doing for years. Legislation also went into effect increasing funding for K-12 school mental health efforts. We support these measures along with NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Minnesota. Additional funds were also provided to upgrade school security.

    The NRA did not bring busloads of people in. That is a flat out lie. Rather, hundreds of law-abiding citizen gun owners, including myself, were in attendance. We drove ourselves to the hearings thank you. The turnout was the result of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance of Minnesota, a non-profit, Minnesota based advocacy group by and for Minnesotans. We represent the 99.9% that peaceably and lawfully own and in many cases carry firearms. We as much, if not more, want to continue to see the significant reduction in gun crime our country has experienced over the past twenty years during a legislative environment that has been primarily pro-second amendment. Attempts to deem us somehow uniquely threatening or of the same ilk as criminals that commit gun crimes are at best naive and at worse intentionally defaming. “…… when the NRA flooded government buildings with busloads of angry men, some of them probably armed.”

    Your making this a race issue is reprehensible. Despite your protestations, the fact of the matter is there weren’t enough votes to implement additional laws that wouldn’t impact gun crime. That’s why it failed. On the other hand, legislation that is effective won out and went completely ignored by your article. Fact based, reasoned dialogue creates effective results, not political posturing.

  10. Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/04/2013 - 05:36 pm.

    Second day in a row for the race card in the CV Column

    Yesterday it was vitriol for the President; and now this. It seems the journalistic standards for this column are slipping.

    Blaming a bogeyman, whether it be the NRA, bus loads of angry men, or non-minority legislators, avoids the truth that there is not popular support for increased gun control. Look to Colorado, where the voters bounced their Senate President; the people spoke.

  11. Submitted by Shelley Leeson on 10/07/2013 - 03:18 pm.


    A rebuttal to this silly, fantasy piece was submitted to editor Susan Albright on Friday, but since it seems you only allow the “Community Voices” that support your biased narrative and that of your contributors (Joyce Foundation) and don’t have the courage to post it, here is a link to the rebuttal:

    How and why Minnesota legislators rejected the gun control lobby

    • Submitted by William Gleason on 10/07/2013 - 06:54 pm.

      MinnPost has been more than fair in posting a link

      to this terrible article.

      It is obvious why they rejected it for publication.

      But one example:

      “First, the writers demean Representative Hilstrom by not affording her the title, House Representative, which she earned. (Is this sexism?) Second, the writers omit telling how much of the original “gun” control legislation submitted (some authored by unelected activist, Heather Martens) was plainly unconstitutional, clearly violating not only the Second Amendment, but most of the rest of the first 10 Amendments in the Constitution.”

      The article is full of unsupported statements and insults in the typical manner of someone who throws as much as they can at a wall in the hope that some will stick.

      And of course the right wing has been on twitter most of the day complaining that rejection of this kind of nonsense is evidence of the bias of MinnPost. For example:

      @TCguns_carry The only “Community Voices” @MinnPost allows are ones that match their biased narrative & that of funders… #stribpol

      The comment policy has been more than fair to the right as the treatment of this one shows once again.

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