Can Minnesota improve its 'C+' gun safety grade?

A lot of Minnesotans believe our gun safety laws leave something to be desired, but experience hasn't made them hopeful for a change.

A lot of Minnesotans believe our gun safety laws leave something to be desired, but experience hasn't made them hopeful for a change. Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Minnesota does have gun laws.

You’re not allowed to keep one where you know a little kid could get her hands on it. You’re not supposed to have one if you’ve been convicted of certain crimes, or if you’re a domestic abuser. We also have regulation—just some—on assault weapons and gun dealers.

And as far as outcomes, we’re doing pretty well. Minnesota has the eighth-lowest gun death rate in the nation at 8.2 deaths per year for each 100,000 residents. (The national average is 11.9.)

But as the Giffords Law Center states in its annual report, there’s more we could be doing. We don’t, for example, require universal background checks or permits to buy a gun. Nor do we have laws against large-capacity magazines, or purchasing guns in bulk.

This year, the center gave us a C+ for our gun safety efforts. Wisconsin, right next door, got a C-. Meanwhile, both of the Dakotas got Fs. Only eight states, including California and New Jersey, were A material.

It’s not glorious being a C-student, but it’s not for lack of trying.

Last session, Minnesota legislators sought two new gun safety laws: one to fill in the gaps in our background check system (think buying guns at gun shows, from a friend, or online) and another to create a process to temporarily remove guns from someone having a mental health crisis.

“Firearms are the most successful form of suicide there is,” says Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park), who championed both bills last session.

Recent studies estimate that some 22 percent of United States gun owners managed to get their most recent gun without a background check. 

These aren’t exactly radical measures. A Star Tribune poll found that about 84 percent of Minnesotans supported universal background checks. That percentage dips to about 81 percent in the metro suburbs and rural corners of the state. But both of the proposals died untimely deaths in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“I honestly find it inexplicable,” says Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul), who sponsored the House’s background check bill last year.

Both legislators are measured when they talk about their chances of getting laws passed this year. They argue the bills are popular, and that there’s already some evidence they work; after Connecticut passed a law requiring a background check to buy handguns, researchers found gun suicide dropped by 15 percent, and gun homicide dropped by 40 percent.

But those arguments were offered last year, and they didn't change the minds that mattered. Latz says there’s only a “fraction” of Minnesotans who remain unconvinced.

“There’s a deep skepticism about the motives of government,” he says, “And the belief that a gun is very much a function of who they are…. Candidly, that’s a very narrow slice of Minnesota.”

But it’s a slice that shows up for caucuses and primaries, and votes based on this one issue. It’s a slice, Latz says, that has a “lock hold” on mostly—but not exclusively—Republican legislators. That's not to mention the money involved. According to the Star Tribune, the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus is urging supporters to raise $50,000 to back up pro-gun legislators in election years, no matter how badly the pro-gun control crowd wants to kick them out. 

There may also be people out there who look at Minnesota’s C+ rating and decide that’s good enough for them. After all, 21 states, including our neighbors in the Dakotas, got Fs this year. But Pinto takes issue with that.

“That just doesn’t seem very Minnesotan,” he says. “We’re not satisfied with a C+ in a lot of things.”

As a prosecutor, he often gets a front-row seat to the misery gun violence inflicts. There’s no reason, he says, for our state to be satisfied with its current state of affairs. 

And if they fail again?

“Then, presumably, that’s something that will go to the polls in November,” Pinto says.