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Q&A: New U of M Gun Violence Prevention Clinic hopes to prevent gun violence through litigation

The three-year pilot program will have students doing pro bono litigation in firearms law and the Second Amendment in an effort to prevent gun violence and grow the number of lawyers who have expertise in the area.

A person lighting a candle at the memorial in front of Club Q after a mass shooting at the LGBTQ nightclub, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in November.
A person lighting a candle at the memorial in front of Club Q after a mass shooting at the LGBTQ nightclub, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in November.
REUTERS/Isaiah J. Downing

Earlier this month, the University of Minnesota Law School announced it would be launching a Gun Violence Prevention law clinic starting next year. 

Minnesota has seen a sharp rise in gun-related deaths in recent years, and around the country the number of mass shootings, and the number of people killed in them, continues to rise. At the same time, much of the legislation proposed by gun control advocates has proven difficult to pass. Amid that backdrop, the Center hopes to use another tool — litigation — to reduce gun violence by changing policy.

The three-year pilot program will have students doing pro bono litigation in firearms law and the Second Amendment in an effort to prevent gun violence and grow the number of lawyers who have expertise in the area.

The clinic – which will be led by Assistant Professor Megan Walsh – will partner with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office on Second Amendment cases, while also consulting with communities affected by gun violence to guide their work.

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Walsh spoke with MinnPost via phone for this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity. 

MinnPost: Could talk a bit about the program and how the idea for it came about?

Megan Walsh: There has been a lot of discussion within the gun violence prevention movement about how we need more people working on these issues. The law has been changing very quickly and there have not been enough people in academia and enough law students really getting engaged with the very essential topic of gun violence prevention and the Second Amendment. Nothing was really happening. 

So the clinic itself was really born of my own initiative: I have a personal calling to work with law students and help them understand that there are things that they can do with their legal skills that really can change a very significant issue in our society today, so I built the clinic myself, basically, I found funders and I came to the University of Minnesota law school with this idea, and the law school was excited to help me bring my vision to reality.

MP: How would litigation (via this clinic) help with preventing future incidents of gun violence?

MW: I think personally that there are a lot of ways to prevent gun violence and sometimes people think it’s all about passing new laws or preventing bad laws from being enacted. But we, individually, don’t always have a lot of control over the political process so litigation is a tool that we can use to really take affirmative action on this issue. 

Assistant Professor Megan Walsh
Assistant Professor Megan Walsh
Litigation is a way to make change when things have been blocked on the legislative level. Some of that might be ensuring that laws that are on the books – in an effort to prevent gun violence – are actually being enforced on the ground. Some of that may be supporting other initiatives, violence interrupters, or finding ways to get communities the resources they need, because we know that’s another proven way to prevent gun violence. We’ve seen a lot of really effective litigation in the area in the last few years, some of that has been directed against gun manufacturers and other agents who really can drive change. We want to build on the litigation that has been happening in the space and bring out new ideas and new applications.

MP: What are the benefits to using students within the law school to do this work versus licensed attorneys?

MW: Students have the opportunity to use their pro bono time to really get at the heart of some of these issues and what we’re going to be doing is coming up with new creative ways to use litigation to prevent gun violence. That just takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of time and thought and effort and it’s something that individuals who are in private practice may not have that capacity. Individuals who are practicing in a gun violence prevention organization already have a number of cases that they’re already running so it’s hard to find the time to come up with these creative solutions. I think it’s really exciting to have students working on these issues and it’s also creating a whole group of people who can go out into the world and work on these issues after graduation. 

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Gun violence prevention and Second Amendment work is coming up in all kinds of areas. So if you’re a student who goes into government work it might arise there, or in the criminal field as a prosecutor. It might come up during pro bono while you’re working at a law firm, or it might come up as a law clerk for a judge and having that kind of expertise and understanding may help them understand and may help them as they look at cases before a judge. Right now, judges are dealing with lots of Second Amendment issues for the first time so just having a stronger bar of attorneys practicing out in the field is going to make a huge difference in the gun violence prevention movement. So one of the goals of this clinic is also to kind of create that next generation of lawyers who are working on Second Amendment and gun violence prevention issues.

MP: Can you talk a bit about the importance of partnering with the Minnesota Attorney General’s office and how you think their involvement or his office’s involvement helps a clinic like this get off the ground?

MW: The Attorney General’s office is responsible for defending strong state laws that themselves prevent gun violence, such as background checks, or a current case right now is a case where plaintiffs are challenging a Minnesota law that prevents 18 to 20 year olds from carrying in public. Laws like that save lives and there’s a lot of initiative on the gun rights side to challenge those laws, especially under the new Supreme Court case that came out in June. So it is a really amazing opportunity for students to work directly with the people who are responsible for defending these laws at the state level. 

In addition to the defensive work, (that’s what I call defensive work: when you’re defending a state law that exists to prevent gun violence) the Attorney General’s office has been really creative in finding new ways to address gun violence problems in our state. (Keith Ellison) is working with civil tools, including bringing affirmative litigation in an effort to address trafficking and he’s looking at what he can do to support neighborhoods that are experiencing disproportionate effects of gun violence in their communities. We are going to allow our students to learn from the Attorney General’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office is also going to benefit from the pro bono work with the law students who have, like I said before, the time and the capacity to really dive into these issues and come up with new solutions and new ideas, and then figure out if they are worth bringing into a court.

MP: Is this kind of work something that’s happening elsewhere or is this a first-of-its-kind kind of program?

MW: here are certainly other law schools where there are students who are partnering with organizations in the gun violence prevention field such as Giffords (Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence) or Brady or students who are working in the Attorney General’s Office on Second Amendment cases. But we will be the first ones who are really focused on bringing our own litigation and the first ones who are in-house and a specific law clinic dedicated to this issue.

Sometimes, gun violence is so pervasive and so much a part of our lives in America right now. It can sometimes feel overwhelming when you think about how we are ever gonna get out of this. I want to show law students that there really are things that they can do in their individual lives, in their individual careers, that can make a true difference in our society.

MP: How does the clinic plan to interact with the communities that experience this kind of violence?

MW: Gun violence can and has and will happen anywhere. The news tells us that, but we do know that some communities experience gun violence at disproportionate rates. So many people in the gun violence prevention movement are trying to figure out how to support those communities and specifically reduce gun violence in those areas. So our goal is really to work with those communities and so we will be working with leaders in those communities, working with representatives of those communities, to identify areas where litigation could help them get what they need. 

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But ideally, those ideas should be coming from the communities themselves and not necessarily from us, because they’re the ones who know what gun violence looks like in their lives and what needs to change to prevent it from continuing. In Minnesota, we’ve had record-high deaths in the last few years. With the pandemic, the sale of guns has increased exponentially and injuries and deaths related to gun violence have also increased significantly in that time. So this is a really important time right now for new people to be working on this issue.

MP: How will you go about soliciting or collecting those ideas from community members?

MW: I think it’s going to be a lot of relationship building on an individual level. What we’re planning on doing at this point is meeting with people, talking with people, finding out what their needs are in their own words, and then figuring out if there’s a way that we can use litigation to help them.

Community lawyering is a term that we talk about sometimes: really being in touch with communities and letting them take the lead.