Testing Minnesota's gun show loophole

How easy is it to buy a firearm in the Twin Cities?

"If there's an unequivocal opposite to growing up around guns," says Andrew Rothman, "it's being raised by New York Jews." He puts down his glass of water and wipes his dark goatee with a napkin. It would be quite the outlandish statement were he not talking about himself.

"I grew up believing guns were bad," he continues. "That's what my parents taught me. But they also taught me to read. That was their first mistake."

Rothman is the executive director of the Minnesota Association of Defensive Firearm Instructors. Before you can get a permit to carry, you have to take a handgun class taught by a guy like him.

He doesn't fit central casting's stereotype of gun nut. Nor do his three companions for dinner tonight at a St. Paul restaurant. One is a retired attorney, another a law professor, a third a retired business consultant. Everyone at the table is packing.

The quartet form the core of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, a gun rights lobbyist group that successfully spearheaded a 2003 bill that made Minnesota a "shall issue" state. The legislation stripped local sheriffs of the authority to deny permits to carry at their whim and led to an explosion in the number of permits that continues to this day. In 2008, about 50,000 Minnesotans had permits to carry firearms. Two years later, that number's up to 72,685, which, as gun advocates are quick to point out, coincides with a decrease in violent crime across the state—though that hasn't quieted the critics.

"They want to turn their hysterical fantasy into your current reality," says Hamline Law professor Joe Olson, the group's president and the face of gun rights in Minnesota. "It's a moral campaign for these guys. It grew of the temperance campaign in the '20s, which makes it impossible to talk rationally."

By "they," Olson means Citizens for a Safer Minnesota, whose counteroffensive in recent months has rankled the state's gun-rights activists, specifically the group's efforts to close Minnesota's "gun show loophole," which allows individuals to buy and sell firearms without a background check.

"This is our number-one priority right now," says Joan Peterson, a Duluth resident who sits on the board of Citizens for a Safer Minnesota and the national Brady Campaign. "As it stands, violent criminals can go to these shows and buy several weapons with no oversight."

She found a sympathetic ear in state representative Michael Paymar, who in March introduced a bill that would require background checks for all private sales at gun shows across the state.

Outrage ensued. The National Rifle Association directed members to call and email Paymar. "I received messages calling me 'un-American,' 'communist,' you name it," says Paymar. "The tone was actually scary." The Paymar Bill, as it came to be known, died in committee, though Paymar vows to reintroduce it at some point.

Paymar has never fired a handgun, nor has he ever attended a gun show. He was moved to act, he says, after seeing a YouTube clip. In it, Colin Goddard, a Virginia Tech massacre survivor who was shot four times, attends gun shows and successfully buys firearms without undergoing a background check or even being asked to show identification.

So I decided to try to buy a gun. To hear the Citizens for a Safer Minnesota tell it, this would be an easy task. I didn't have a permit, but surely these gun merchants would insist I purchase their wares, federal red tape be damned. I might even enjoy it.

"There's something about actually shooting a gun that shows 'em the light," says John Caile, a jack-o-lantern-grinning firearms instructor and board member of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, whose devotion to the gun stemmed from a Warehouse District mugging in 1995. "Heck, you might even want a permit to carry yourself!"

ON A DECEPTIVELY CHILLY, sunlit morning, dozens of gun enthusiasts file into the barnlike confines of National Guard Armory in West St. Paul. Two junior high kids sitting behind a desk accept the five-dollar entry fee like boosters at a high school basketball game.

Once inside the dilapidated gymnasium, visitors are greeted by a maze of 50 booths on which lay a smorgasbord of mostly guns, but also glistening knives of infinite shapes and sizes, samurai swords resting horizontally on wooden racks, and throwing stars arranged in menacing, angular bouquets.

Shuffling along the concrete floor, more than 70 customers peruse the wares like dehydrated joggers examining a convenience-store cooler. The vendors—invariably morose and wary-eyed—don't say much to passersby other than the occasional, robotic "how ya doing." An unspoken etiquette seems to dictate that vendors don't initiate conversation until a prospective buyer pauses for at least 10 seconds at a given display.

"Interested in anything in particular?" asks a suddenly sprung-to-life salesman, his eyes swimming behind thick rectangular spectacles. "Anything you need, we got."

On the table before him lay 28 handguns arranged by caliber. The .22s sit to the left, followed by, in ascending order of size, .38s, 9 millimeters, .40s, and 44s, with a pristine stainless steel .45 Colt revolver priced at $399 at the far end. Four six-foot-long wires are strung through the guns' trigger guards and locked on either end below the display, an effective and very necessary anti-theft measure.

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