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Why gun-rights advocates may — or may not — be really ticked at Republican lawmakers in Minnesota

Inside the strange fight over expanding stand-your-ground laws in Minnesota. 

A scene from the 2013 Minnesota Weapons Collectors Association show at RiverCentre in St. Paul.
MinnPost file photo by Jim Walsh

Earlier this year, when the Minnesota legislative session ended, some of Minnesota’s most fierce gun rights advocates were not happy. Or at least it seemed that way.

“Stabbed in the back,” “betrayed,” and “ deceived,’’ were just a few of the words showing up on gun rights websites.

The displeasure was focused on the fate of two measures that had been floated at the Legislature. One would have exempted “qualified” Minnesotans from having to take a gun-training class and apply to a local law enforcement office for a right to carry permit.

The other bill was a bigger deal. It would have expanded the state’s “stand your ground” laws so that a person would no longer have to retreat or sound a warning before firing a gun at someone they believed posed an imminent threat to their safety. 

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In the wake of Republicans taking control of both the House and Senate after the 2016 election — victories gun-rights groups believed they had a hand in securing — those were the two big issues those groups expected to see addressed.

But then, well, nothing. Though the House passed the stand-your-ground bill out of committee, the Senate did not, and there were no floor votes on either measure.

And so, in the weeks and months that followed, some gun-rights advocates vowed that there would be consequences. “Make no mistake about it, Minnesota Gun Rights will be more than happy to take a political 2 x 4 to ANY politician who stands in the way of our 2nd Amendment Rights,” Ben Dorr, the political director of an outfit called Minnesota Gun Rights, wrote on his organization’s website.

But rather than an example of a grassroots uprising over a passionate constituency’s core beliefs, the episode might be more aptly seen as a lesson in the weird, confusing and often cynical machinations involved in interest group politics in Minnesota, especially around the always potent and often polarizing issue of guns.

Lawmakers, guns and money

Let’s just stipulate that almost nothing is more important to any special-interest group —  left, right or middle — than being angry at something. Without perceived threats, without anger, there can be no call to mobilize. Without mobilization, there can be no power — and no revenue. Environmental groups, pro-business groups, and gun groups of all stripes all use scare tactics to raise money.

The gun-rights lobby is well versed in such tactics, of course. And among gun-rights organizations in Minnesota, a group called Minnesota Gun Rights is almost always loudest and most extreme in its rhetoric, claiming to be “the North Star’s No Compromise Gun Group.’’

For all that, though, Minnesota Gun Rights is also seen as the sketchiest gun-rights organization. Despite its claims about being able to mobilize “thousands” of Minnesotans on behalf of the causes it champions, there’s little evidence that it could ever do so.

Chris Dorr
Chris Dorr

Its political director, Chris Dorr, has worked for Republican pols in Iowa, and the group’s underlying purpose might be best summed up in one of the messages on the group’s website. First, there was a call for pro-gun Minnesotans  to express their anger at state legislators. Then came this request: “When you’re done, please send an emergency contribution to support MN Gun Rights to help run our critical programs.’’  (Efforts to reach Dorr via both phone and email were unsuccessful.)

Veteran legislators have seen this move before. In fact, in 2015, 16 Minnesota legislators — 11 Republicans and 5 DFLers — wrote a letter warning their constituents that Minnesota Gun Rights was less a political organization than a money-raising scheme. “Don’t be fooled by the fake out-of-state MN Gun Rights,’’ the letter stated.

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Trying to ‘run away’ from gun issues?

And yet, just because Minnesota Gun Rights has shaky credentials doesn’t mean everything is sunny between GOP lawmakers and gun-rights advocates in Minnesota.

Given the Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate, there were high expectations among gun advocates going into the 2017 session.

Now, in the wake of their disappointment over the lack of movement, there still are strong words and political threats in the air. In fact, Rob Doar, political director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, says there are number of people ready to line up to run against legislators who didn’t  push hard enough to move the two pieces of legislation gun groups wanted. “I tell you this, actions speak louder than words,’’ said Doar. “We’re tired of words.’’

State Rep. Jim Nash
State Rep. Jim Nash

Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, has become a go-to guy when it comes to carrying gun legislation in St. Paul. “I’ve been a very vocal supporter of the Second Amendment all my life,’’ he said, adding that he supports “all the amendments’’ with equal vigor.

Nash says he understands why some gun people are upset with Republican lawmakers. “I’d say the Second Amendment people were looking forward to the session,’’ Nash said. “I can’t speak for the caucus, but I believe these are important discussions to have and some [Republican lawmakers] are trying to run away from them.’’

But Nash also said that Republicans in the House shouldn’t be the targets of gun-owner contempt. The problem, he said, is in the Senate, where Republicans made it clear they weren’t going to deal with any gun legislation this year.

Indeed, much of the anger among gun-rights people is focused on GOP Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove. As chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy committee, he made no effort to push “constitutional carry” or “stand your ground” bills through the process.

Yet Limmer, a consistently conservative legislator, says there was a good reason for that. “Why would we waste time doing that when we have a governor who veto the bills?’’ he said.  

Limmer noted that for all the attention they get, the people angry at him represent a small segment of the state’s gun owners. In fact, the two major gun groups in the state —  the National Rifle Association and the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance — have both endorsed Limmer for years.

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‘Lots of politics’

The debate over who did and didn’t fight hard enough for the two bills raises another issue, though, one that is bound to be part of the 2018 campaign season: whether some gun-rights groups ever will believe they’re protected enough.

Prior to 2003, permits to carry handguns were tightly controlled as county sheriffs could use their “discretion” as to which applicants needed a permit. That flipped in 2003 when Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed into law a bill that required sheriffs to issue permits assuming applicants passed a uniform set of requirements.

State Sen. Warren Limmer

Now more than 275,000 people in Minnesota have permits to carry, and civilians are free, among other things, to march into legislative hearings armed with a gun.

With a gubernatorial election, as well as state House races, just around the corner, the politics of guns will be in play, even if it’s unclear whether that will means efforts to expand “constitutional carry” and “stand your ground” — or something else.

Sen. Ron Latz, a DFLer from St. Louis Park who’s a longtime nemesis to the pro-gun crowd, knows that the gun groups will be pushing for more next year.

“Hopefully, Chair Limmer will continue to understand that those hearings would only be incredibly divisive and would not be supported by a majority of Minnesotans,’’ Latz wrote in an email response to questions about what lies ahead in the unending gun debate. “But understand that the Republican constituency that votes in primaries is their main concern and they are different kinds of folks. They [Republicans] would also be looking for ‘gotcha’ votes and on Democrats in rural districts.”

In other words, he continued: “Lots of politics here.’’