Settled dust reveals concealed carry stalemate

Firearms instructor and gun rights advocate Joel Rosenberg is no Rambo. "I'm a big fan of running away," he says.
Craig Lassig

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.

"There's been no really bad situations that have occurred, and there's been no really exciting things that have been prevented," says Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association. "Both sides have been somewhat tempered. The law as written has worked as well as it could for these past five years."

Even those gun signs seem to be fading from some storefronts. Jim Pratt owns Adrian's Tavern in south Minneapolis, and when the MCPPA passed, his wife encouraged him to post a sign banning guns. But about two years ago, the sign was stolen, and he hasn't bothered to replace it. "It wasn't worth it to put it back up again," he says.

At least one business has even decided to post a sign encouraging permit holders to carry their pistols inside. Cheri Kappas, co-owner of the Gopher Bar in St. Paul, says she originally put up a tongue-in-cheek sign discouraging pistol carriers, but after an armed robbery, U of M art students drew up a new sign for her that depicts a gopher holding a gun and says, "Permit holders welcome here."

Since then, there hasn't been any trouble, and she credits the sign for dissuading would-be criminals. "They know there's people with guns in here, they kinda leave you alone," she says.

Most of Joel Rosenberg's pistol-permit class takes place in the beige, fluorescent-lit conference room of the AmericInn Chanhassen, where the stocky, bearded instructor holds court with the practiced ease of a professional lecturer. Clad in a T-shirt and jeans with a revolver tucked into the waistband, he lays out all the rules for carrying a pistol in Minnesota, bouncing on the balls of his feet to punctuate his sentences.

Some of the five-hour lecture pertains to where and when you can carry, what types of pistols and holsters are best to carry for self-defense, and which states honor Minnesota's pistol permit. But the majority of Rosenberg's time is spent trying to convince his students that they never, ever want to be in a situation where they'd have to use a gun.

"I'm a big fan of running away," he says, explaining how Minnesota's self-defense laws require the victim to retreat if practical before firing.

He also discourages heading into a bad neighborhood under the assumption that you can "take care of yourself" if you're armed.

"Why go there at all?" he asks. "If there's no conflict, there's no consequences."

His students pay rapt attention, some scribbling notes despite the fact that there won't be a written test later. Craig Vogel, a 27-year-old, tan, and bespectacled National Guardsman, agrees with Rosenberg's cautionary sentiments wholeheartedly. "Me personally, I'd use it as a last resort," he says. "I'm not a person that gets involved in conflicts, I wouldn't go out looking for trouble."

Vicky, a 44-year-old in the class who asked that her real name not be used, recently received an emergency permit to help protect herself against a violent ex, and is now renewing that permit.

"We don't go into carrying like we're going to kill someone," she says. "But we could take self-defense courses all we want and if it's someone who's truly bigger than us it's not going to do much good." 

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