This article is part of an occasional series exploring various communities involved in gun issues, including gun-rights advocates, gun-control advocates, and others interested in gun-violence prevention. This coverage is made possible by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.
If one were to draw up a list of organizing principles that guide Andrew Rothman, defending life would be near the top.
The 44-year-old computer programmer plans to donate his 34th pint of blood, type A+, next month to the American Red Cross.
Among the ways he protects his wife and two young children, he says, is living in the same house for 14 years on a cul de sac in Chanhassen, roughly 20 miles southwest of downtown Minneapolis.
“I don’t have a particularly dangerous lifestyle and I work hard to keep it that way,” Rothman told me as we sat in a Burnsville Dairy Queen on a Saturday afternoon earlier this month. “If you want to have a safe life, being an upper-middle class guy in the suburbs is a good way to do it. My risk of violent attack is rather low.”
But just in case, Rothman carries a gun with him almost everywhere he goes “for general self-defense.” And he keeps several others at his house.
“It’s the same reason that people wear seat belts and have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers,” he said.
But Rothman has dedicated almost none of his personal time during the last decade to educating his fellow Minnesota residents about the uses, benefits and workings of seat belts, smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.
Instead, he’s taught people about guns — why, he says, the constitutional right to possess them is crucial, how to safely and properly shoot them, where it’s legal to carry them, when it’s appropriate to fire them, what their purpose in society is.
Another critical mission of Rothman’s: Defending Minnesotans’ right to possess and carry a gun. During the last decade, Rothman has become arguably the most influential gun-rights voice in the state. He has helped research and write gun-rights legislation. He has energized and mobilized a formerly latent pro-gun rights grassroots base. And he has expanded the Minnesota-based Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance five-fold since becoming one of its officers less than three years ago, said Joseph Olson, an alliance co-founder.
Supporters praise Rothman’s leadership, organizational and intellectual abilities for forging state gun-rights proponents into a cohesive whole. Opponents criticize Rothman’s tactics as heavy-handed and disingenuous, making it harder to achieve the shared goal of reducing injury and death caused by gunshots.
For Rothman, a gun is a tool that defends life. It does not exist solely to inflict harm or kill.
“That conclusion, that statement makes me absolutely insane because it is — that’s one of the tropes: Guns only exist to kill,” Rothman said, his voice growing in volume, his hands moving more quickly over a larger area. “If that’s the case, then 300 million guns in this country are doing a very poor job because 99.999 percent of them aren’t killing anybody.”
He listed examples of guns existing not to kill: Those carried by police officers, those used for sport, those used for hunting and those used for self-defense.
“Self-defense is preserving life,” Rothman said. “That’s as valid as saying taking life.”
Life and property
Leaning over his stove on a recent Wednesday morning cooking himself a ham-and-eggs breakfast while I sat at the kitchen counter, Rothman did not look like a gun enthusiast.
Bespectacled and bewhiskered with a black goatee and short-cropped dark hair, Rothman alternated between preparing his food and mixing up a diet cola using modified home beer-brewing equipment. Clad in a maroon T-shirt and cargo pants, Rothman carried his food to the counter and sat his 5-foot-8, 195-pound frame across from me.
While an undergrad at the University of Minnesota during the early ‘90s, “it struck me as wrong that property was much more likely to be protected than life,” Rothman said of the period between 1974 and 2003 when carrying a gun outside the home was illegal — unless a municipal police chief or county sheriff decreed a person showed “good cause” to possess one.
Before 1974, Minnesota didn’t have state statutes concerning carrying a pistol, although some municipalities had ordinances spelling out carry rules until 1985, when a new law was enacted prohibiting local governments from having stricter carry policies than the state. (There are 173,377 permit holders in Minnesota as of June 2014, according to the Minnesota Association of Defensive Firearm Instructors, which Rothman founded in 2005. He serves as its executive director.)
“Only security guards and business owners transporting money and valuables were granted permits, not someone working third-shift security in bad neighborhoods and feared for their safety,” Rothman said. “It seemed like something I should have the right to do.”
In 2003, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed a law that gave Rothman and most Minnesota residents that right. Rothman had followed news reports detailing the legislation’s progress. By that time, he was interested enough that he completed a carry class and obtained his permit.
The right to bear arms in the Second Amendment fit what had become Rothman’s libertarian philosophy, which he define as, “People should be able to do whatever they want that doesn’t harm someone else.”
Rothman is reluctant to identify his gun-rights activities as a “passion.” But during the 2000s, his investment in the movement was strong enough that he began publicly criticizing the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, a Roseville-based nonprofit advocacy organization founded by two Minnesota lawyers in 1985.
“He thought we were stodgy, not pushing forward, that we weren’t fighting the battles that needed to be fought,” said David Gross, 65, who lives in unincorporated Rice County and remains on the alliance board.
“We were kind of tired after being in the battle for 25 years,” Gross said, referring to his co-founder Olson, 70, a Hamline University law professor and the alliance chairman.
“So, we told him it was time for him to put up or shut up,” Gross said. He and Olson told Rothman that if he thought he knew how to do things better, then he should volunteer to run it. “Andrew accepted the challenge. It’s the best thing (the alliance) ever did. Andrew brought intelligence and energy. He assembled his own crew.”
Olson said that Rothman and that crew brought skills that he and Gross didn’t have. Those included organizing and mobilizing people, creating the alliance website, using social media to broaden the alliance’s appeal and recruiting new members.
“He’s an absolutely incredible guy,” Olson said. “He’s got a very good mind and understands the issues and the politics behind them.”
Gross specifically praised Rothman for getting hundreds of gun-rights supporters to show up at the Capitol when lawmakers were considering firearms legislation.
Those advocates were hard to miss, wearing the signature maroon-and-gold T-shirts with a silhouette in the shape of the state of Minnesota and the alliance’s name inscribed across the front.
Their appearance often frustrates Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota, a St. Paul-based nonprofit organization that seeks to end gun violence — and not simply because her allies and Rothman’s are on opposite ends of the gun-issue spectrum. (Protect Minnesota and MinnPost receive funding from the Joyce Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that, in part, seeks to reduce the number of people injured and killed by gunshots.)
“These people would be fed a lot of misinformation, inconsistency and inaccuracies just to rile them up,” Martens said. “They’d repeatedly be told that something horrible would happen to them. Like the police were going to come and take away their guns. And that’s why they’d show up.”
Martens said that happened last year when she worked with state Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, to pass a bill that would have required background checks in almost all firearms sales.
“One man said he was there to testify because he was told the legislation would take away everyone’s guns,” Martens said. “I told him that wasn’t true, that the bill would just institute a background check for gun sales. He said, ‘Oh, of course there should be a background check.’ So even their supporters wanted the background check, but they were told they should be afraid of all these calamities. It’s not an honest tactic.”
A Martens ally during the background-check push last year, Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action, said he witnessed the same phenomenon.
“But the fact of the matter is a lot of groups use exaggeration and fear to forward their political agendas,” said Rosenthal. The St. Paul-based organization he heads seeks to inspire people to work for social and economic justice in Minnesota. “The goal is when you work at the Capitol to convince legislators of your story, and they did a better job.”
Rosenthal said the less both sides whip up hysteria, the more quickly everyone can have a constructive conversation about the goal everyone shares: To have fewer people die by murder, suicide or accident due to gunshots.
Rothman objected to Martens and Rosenthal’s implication that he and alliance members used untruths to motivate his base.
Regarding the 2013 universal-background check legislation, Rothman said: “We have warned our members that gun registration doesn’t always lead to confiscation, but confiscation isn’t possible without registration. We’ve already seen that happen in New York and California.”
Gross and Rothman also accused gun-control activists of advertising falsehoods when lobbying for their viewpoints.
Training gun instructors
Rothman founded the Minnesota Association of Defensive Firearm Instructors and serves as its executive director. He has trained and certified more than 80 other instructors. He has conducted classes on carrying guns and gun safety since 2005. The National Rifle Association has certified Rothman in Basic Pistol and Pistol First Steps, Home Firearm Safety, Personal Protection in the Home and as a range safety officer. He became president of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance last year, after serving for two years as its vice president.
He says he’s troubled when people use the term “gun violence.”
“When people say we want to stop gun violence, are they saying it’s OK if it’s knife violence or fist violence and we’re not concerned about those?” Rothman asked.
But don’t guns inflict more harm? I asked him.
“No,” Rothman answered, “people inflict more harm with guns a lot and effectively.”
But don’t you think because of the force multiplier effect of that weapon, it makes sense to focus on the source that causes greater harm? I pressed.
“The source is the intent; the source is the person that’s doing it,” Rothman said.
Examining the mechanism, rather than the person wielding the mechanism, is misguided, according to Rothman.
“When you focus on the tool, you lose track of the actual source of the problem,” he said.
Throughout our conversations, Rothman told me several times that I asked “a good question, but it might not be the right question.”
So I asked him what the right question is. He said we needed to ask: What could we do about violence in this country?
“There might be several things we can do,” Rothman said. “One, might be an agreement by the media not to glamorize mass murderers, because we see over and over, mass murderers study and idolize the mass murderers who have come before.”
A Canadian news network announced earlier this week, after a gunman killed three police officers and critically injured two others in New Brunswick, that it would not identify the killer or show his photograph. “We will not help give this killer his blaze of glory,” the Sun News Network wrote in an editorial.
Another idea would be to put first-responders closer to places where these events happen, Rothman said: schools and movie theaters, public places where people gather.
“There’s no doubt in the evidence that what stops a mass shooter is a good guy with a gun,” Rothman said. “And the faster that happens, the lower the death toll is.”
A Federal Bureau of Investigation study released in January showed that more than half of the 104 mass-shooting incidents the FBI identified from 2000 to 2012 ended when someone else with a gun appeared on the scene.
He called it “ridiculous” that the principal, teachers and janitor at his children’s school are prohibited from carrying a firearm at school.
“That’s what’s going to stop it,” Rothman said. “It kills me to think of this elementary school principal in (Newtown), Connecticut, who was so heroic and so ill-equipped to do anything. She stood in front of that guy with an AR-15 (semiautomatic rifle) and said, no, you can’t come in, and so he killed her. She said no, but she had absolutely nothing to back it up with.”