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A thin, goateed man inserts a magazine into the butt of his handgun and releases the slide, loading the first round into the firing chamber. Holding the pistol solidly with both hands, his feet a shoulder's width apart, he raises the barrel and squeezes the trigger. Pop, pop, pop. The shots echo loudly in the bunker-like shooting range even with ear-protecting muffs, but the shooter isn't bothered by the noise.
He takes his time, breathes between shots, and focuses on the front sight of his gun, letting the back sight and his target blur in his vision. His bullets punch a tight pattern of 10-millimeter holes in the cardboard-backed silhouette 15 feet in front of him before burying themselves in a shredded rubber backstop 75 feet downrange. The ejected brass cartridge cases ping onto the concrete floor.
The shooter is Ted Sirek, one of 14 men and women taking a class that's required by Minnesota law before they can be legally authorized to carry a pistol in public. Sirek says he hopes he never has to fire his Heckler and Koch USP Compact handgun at anyone, but would to protect his family.
"If that situation arose, God forbid, I would try to defend them as much as was practically possible," he says with determination.
The course is taught by Joel Rosenberg, a firearms instructor with a long history of pistol-carry activism. He suggests that after five years, mild-mannered Minnesotans have finally learned that a gun tucked into a waistband isn't the sign of a blood-hungry nutcase.
"It's like the gay couple that moves in down the block," he says. "At first some people get upset, but after a while it's just like, 'Yeah, that's just Joe and Todd.'"
Five years ago, if Sirek had wanted to carry a pistol, he would have had to convince his local sheriff that he had good reason to do so. But in 2003, Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the Minnesota Citizens' Personal Protection Act, commonly mislabeled the "concealed carry" law (the MCPPA allows a permit holder to wear a pistol in public either openly or concealed).
The bill's passage came with a firestorm of protest and debate. Opponents feared the effects of an increasingly armed populace. Then-state Sen. Dean Johnson said, "This state will forever be changed, and not for the positive."
His colleague, then-state Sen. Wes Skoglund, was more emphatic in his protest, wearing a bulletproof vest on the floor of the Senate and boldly declaring, "People are going to die because of this bill. This bill is going to make Minnesota a far more dangerous place to live."
Joe Olson, a Hamline law professor and one of the bill's authors, argued that the law would have the opposite effect. "Good people are going to be safer," he said at the time.
He also predicted that pistol carriers would be well behaved with their firearms. "When all this smoke blows away, this will be seen as a very good law and there will be no problems with the permit holders," he said at the time.
Within a month of the bill's passage, more than 4,000 people had applied for permits. Since most permit holders choose to conceal their sidearms, the most visible evidence of the law's passage were the gun-ban signs that started popping up in store windows.
Five years later, over 50,000 Minnesotans have pistol permits. And as it turns out, predictions on both sides of the debate were inaccurate.
The drop in violent crime touted by MCPPA proponents hasn't manifested; instead, violent crime is up 4.41 percent over the five years since the law passed, and there have been no reported instances of permit holders stopping an assault with gunshots.
Permit holders haven't been the angels that Olson predicted, either. Since 2003, 65 permits have been revoked or suspended because a judge determined that the holders were a danger to themselves or others. In 2005, Timothy Engle, a permitted pistol carrier and a security guard, was convicted on a felony count of reckless discharge of a firearm after a shooting that left a teenage thief paralyzed. Damian Eric Petersen pleaded guilty to the same charge after shooting up his brother's car during an argument in 2003. In 2005, Zachary Ourada shot a bouncer at Nye's Polonaise Room in Minneapolis and pled guilty to second-degree homicide. More recently, Martin Treptow allegedly shot and injured an undercover cop during a misunderstanding over a traffic stop.
But these extreme cases are relatively few. The predictions that the average Minnesotan would face significantly increased risk at the hands of permitted pistol carriers, or that many permit holders would use their guns to solve personal conflicts, haven't come to pass.
Heather Martens, president of Citizens for a Safer Minnesota, argues that there's another metric to assess the effects of the MCPPA: money. She points to 13 counties that report deficits from the bureaucratic process of granting permits to citizens, which involves performing an extensive background check on the applicant. "There's no evidence of improved public safety," she says. "Our public safety dollars could be better spent."
But despite the fact that a few counties are losing money under the MCPPA, in 2007, 85 percent of counties reported profiting from the permitting process; statewide, the new law actually added $159,605 to county sheriffs' departments last year.