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.

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Nick Vlcek
Nick Vlcek

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.

"When you have a lot of people who are not allowed to buy 'em—felons, domestic abusers, and the mentally ill, and so forth—it makes 'em that much more tempting," explains the merchant.

There was an incident last year, he continues, in which a "gangbanger or something" managed to lift a 9 millimeter, but the shoplifter was arrested 40 minutes later on his drive home.

"This place is crawling with cops, y'see," the dealer says. "Word gets out quick."

The room smells like dusty leather and suspicion. Upon discovering that he's conversing with a reporter, the vendor declines to provide his name. Gun enthusiasts are a notoriously guarded lot, but these days, they feel almost cornered. Over at the NRA booth, near the entrance, a gray-bearded recruiter makes his pitch.

"Twenty-five bucks gets you a full year's membership," he tells anyone who'll listen, offering to throw in a free T-shirt and hat.

On the wall behind him hang a half-dozen anti-Obama bumper stickers. One features a beaming Obama next to a caption: "#1 Gun Salesman of the Year."

"Y'know something else?" the pitchman says. "Obama's the number-one NRA recruiter of the year, too!"

The NRA's ranks have grown nearly 30 percent since Obama's arrival on the scene two years ago, from 3.5 million members to 4.5 million. There's a fear among firearms enthusiasts that a Democratically controlled Congress and White House will pry the guns from their fingers—cold, dead, or otherwise.

Over at a literature table, dozens of books offer a history of killing machines from the 18th century to the present. Nazi-themed tomes, for whatever reason, seem particularly popular. The red-and-yellow covers of The SS: The Blood Soaked Soil and The Battles of the Waffan SS scream out from the pile.

It wasn't just books. In the opposite corner of the gym was an absurd juxtaposition: MasterCard, Visa, and American Express logos inform purchasers of payment options regarding a black-and-white portrait of Adolf Hitler and accompanying cloth-stitched swastika.

On an adjacent table lies a black, slightly cracked German Luger, manufactured in 1942, valued at $1,295. A red swastika-emblazoned armband is unfurled beneath the Luger.

"That's not for sale," says the vendor. "It's just a replica. If this were real, it'd go for $700 minimum!"

In that case, why have it on display?

"It catches people's eyes," he says. "Especially those from the class of '45."

The proprietor's name is Tim. A willowy 56-year-old part-time photographer, Tim hardly looks threatening. His gun-infused childhood on the North Shore spurred a lifelong love of gun shooting, collecting, and selling.

Which isn't to say he lacks a political bent. He carries in his backpack a copy of the U.S. Constitution, which he produces unprompted mid-conversation, and at one point quotes comics writer Alan Moore saying, "People shouldn't be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people."

He seems to catch himself there and changes the subject. With no other customers demanding his attention, Tim segues into a brief tutorial on gun dealers' responsibilities.

Before any transaction is finalized, all licensed vendors must place a call to the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System, an all-day hotline that every diligent vendor has on speed dial and which is referred to as "Nicks" (NICS). If the call turns up any felonies, instances of domestic abuse, or mental illness, the sale is canceled.

"This is not the venue for selling machine guns," Tim adds as he nods respectfully to a passing browser. "Those are hard to come by. Only hard collectors get into them. Very expensive, plus there's a $200 federal transfer tacked on for every sale."

About 12 minutes later, a prim man wades through the booths, black Romanian WASR-10 AK-47 slung over his shoulder. A white sheet of paper taped to its glistening black barrel announces its price: $500 or best offer.

"I want my baby to go to a good home," he says, eyeing me up and down.

I can tell by his squinting, sun-weathered eyes that he doesn't mean mine.

THE ODOR OF GRILLING BURGERS and brats wafts through the east side of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. White guys stand in groups of three; a few sit at a picnic table and squint into the blazing sun, which shines unseasonably warm this April day.

The racial makeup of gun show-goers warrants brief remark, if only because of the inescapable stereotype that accompanies the subculture. The clichéd caricature of the "gun nut" is not only white, but aggressively white.

When three black men enter the show at around 1 p.m., however, no one pays them much mind. Asked about their experience here, they seem more taken aback by the question's presumption than the surroundings.

"I've been to three gun shows, and I've never had a problem," says Grant, turning to his friends for corroboration. They nod. They're not here to purchase, Grant adds. For many, gun and knife shows are the male equivalent of window-shopping for shoes.

"This one right here, I'm telling ya, it's like, 'Don't fuck with him," says a gaunt 40-something holding up an FS2000, a Belgium-made assault rifle so sleek it looks like it should shoot lasers. "She's got a 1.6x magnification optic, sight cover, and attached flash suppressor. Shoots 5.56 NATOs from 500 meters out minimum. That's minimum."

Both men grin in that knowing, self-contained way common to hobbyists of all stripes.

By late afternoon it was time to redouble my efforts to buy a handgun.

I came across a Hi-Point 380 ACP for $159. Hi-Point specializes in affordable handguns, perfectly reliable but not very exotic—an ideal starter gun. She was mine.

"Can I help you?" asks a walrus-mustached man, his flaccid jowls signaling a nonchalant demeanor.

"So, um, what's the difference between a Glock and a Beretta?" I asked.

A stupid question in this environment, and also a suspicious one. It'd be like attending the Cannabis Cup and asking a vendor the difference between hashish and marijuana.

"Well, Glocks are easier to use, I suppose, with a trigger-on-trigger safety, instead of an external lever," he says. "Beretta, on the other hand, is a more traditional pistol with a hammer instead of a slide."

I opt for neither, going instead with the Hi-Point. He hands me a clipboard containing a questionnaire—the background check required of all licensed firearms dealers. The so-called "gun show loophole" refers to sales between two individuals. The occasional guy walking around with a rifle and makeshift price tag are not required to check in with the national criminal database each time they make a sale.

A permit to purchase is often confused with a permit to carry, the latter being more expensive, time-intensive, and controversial. Permits to carry, despite widespread public misunderstanding, have nothing to do with concealed carry. A permit to carry in the state of Minnesota allows anyone to walk down Hennepin Avenue armed with, say, 15 clearly visible handguns strapped across his chest if he so chooses. That's a horrible idea for many reasons, so most permit carriers voluntarily conceal.

"You have your permit to purchase, right?" asks the vendor.

The answer to the question was an unfortunate no.

"No permit to purchase?" he said. "You're shit outta luck, my friend."

THREE WEEKS LATER, the National Guard Armory in Anoka bustles with gun collectors. It's a smaller venue than the last, but with a similar number of booths and a bit more foot traffic at this noon hour. If there's a show to buy a gun without the proper credentials, this would seem to be my best chance.

But three consecutive attempts yield reactions ranging from apologetic to annoyed.

"No permit to purchase, no sale," snaps a looming, pear-shaped man as his plump hands hastily repackage what would otherwise be a sale. "Wasting your time here without one. Good day."

The vendors here are sticklers on every provision, clause, subsection, and footnote on the books. In one case, a clean-cut seller in a charcoal-black Harley Davidson shirt conversed curtly with two men, one who appeared to be in his 70s, the other fiftyish. The vendor refuses to sell more than two handguns to the befuddled duo.

"Them's the rules," says the vendor. "I don't give a fuck, but them's the rules."

"Well, in that case, I'll just buy the Colt and sell it to him," replies the elder of the two.

"Now that's a straw buy," retorted the vendor. "One hundred percent illegal. I don't give a fuck, but if I were to sell ya that after you just told me that, I'd lose my license!"

"I've known him since he was this high," says the man, holding his liver-spotted hand four feet off the floor.

"I understand that, but it's worse than dealing with the IRS if I sold ya two!"

Six days, three gun shows, and 19 attempts to buy handguns sans permit had yielded zero sales.

"WE DON'T SHOOT TO KILL," Rothman tells four students sitting attentively in a small classroom in the upstairs of an Eden Prairie sporting goods store. "We shoot to live."

The attendees are applying for conceal-and-carry permits. Two guys appear to be in their 50s, the others in their 30s. Three are white, one is Asian, all are male.

We file into what could pass for a small bowling alley. Behind the counter, through a full-length pane of glass, gunmen idly shoot paper targets. Around them, hundreds of brass casings lay on the frayed gray carpet like dead metallic roaches.

The day's test will consist of shooting a paper silhouette of a man at two distances: 15 and 21 feet, mere layups to seasoned shooters.

I go last. Taking position at the far-left gallery, I admit to being a handgun virgin.

"I'll be gentle," quips Rothman.

We start with a .22 caliber Browning Buckback, a comparatively innocuous little imp better suited to cans and targets than burglars. Ten bullets zip through the paper silhouette and it's on to more powerful fare.

Rothman produces an almost comically oversized silver revolver, an eight-shot .357 caliber Taurus 608. It's heavy, with a surprisingly mild kick, much gentler than the comparatively diminutive Taurus Model 85 .38 Special. The uninitiated might assume small pistols carry a pint-sized kick. But owing to the basic law of physics, the heavier the make, the milder the recoil.

After five minutes and 25 rounds of warm-ups, it's time for the test. An inexplicable wave of adrenaline washes through my arms and torso as I clumsily load five 9mm rounds into a magazine. I slap the magazine into the handle grip of a midnight-black semi-automatic Glock 17, and take aim.

Pop! Pause. Pop! Pop! Pause. Pop! Pop!

After seeing the five shots land true, Rothman instructs me to reload ten more rounds and squeeze them off. I oblige. Nerves settled, I begin to understand the elusive appeal of the gun. To be in control of a tool this powerful and deadly is to experience a visceral, almost intoxicating degree of autonomy. It's sort of like the initial few days of giddy emancipation one feels after receiving a driving license, all contained in a flex of an index finger.

"I won't tell the other guys," Rothman says as the target reels back six additional feet, "but you're shooting a perfect score so far."

The words of encouragement proved to be a jinx. The next two shots veer five inches off-target, one high and to the left, the other just high. Ignoring the occasional spent shell casing peppering my head, I continue to blast away, each shot about two seconds apart. I regain control and finish with a score of 146.

I'm now eligible for a permit to carry in Minnesota.

I leave the Burnsville Pistol Range parking lot with a tattered paper target, 28 unspent 9 millimeter rounds, and a mild headache.

But no gun.

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