President Obama brought his campaign to curb gun violence to Minnesota on Monday, and the North Star State offers valuable lessons for a nation in the midst of a critical public debate. If the president can make progress in Minnesota, there is reason to hope he can promote consensus on effective gun violence prevention measures throughout the nation.
Like so many other states, Minnesota recently experienced its own horrific gun violence, when a dismissed employee shot and killed six people at a Minneapolis signage company in September. Police described it as the deadliest case of violence in the workplace since Minnesota authorities began keeping track of the figures in 1992. The company's owner, an immigrant who built his business over the course of many decades and had broad ties in the local community, was among the victims, and the killings have had a profound impact on the local debate on gun violence.
That debate is taking place in a state with a strong tradition of gun ownership and strong support for the Second Amendment. Most of Minnesota's House delegation, including some Democrats, have been unenthusiastic about President Obama's call for an assault weapons ban. Minnesota's Democratic Governor, Mark Dayton, has taken a cautious approach on gun violence prevention legislation, noting that while he's prepared to have a dialogue on proposals, legislative efforts would face constitutional challenges. Even Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, who support an assault weapons ban, have emphasized the right of Minnesotans to own guns. As Klobuchar put it at a hearing several days ago, "I come from a hunting state; the last thing I want to do is hurt my Uncle Dick in his deer stand."
The affirmation of the right to keep and bear arms is understandable in a state with guns in nearly half of all households, where citizens hunt game species in more than 1400 wildlife refuge areas, and where political leaders have long argued that law-abiding citizens should have access to firearms to protect themselves and their families.
If support for gun ownership is so entrenched in this part of the country, just why did President Obama choose to make Minnesota the first state he would visit in his campaign to press for his proposals? And what characteristics of this state's political culture make it a laboratory for efforts to reach a broader consensus countrywide on measures to limit gun violence?
First, the state's strong tradition of gun ownership coexists with a history of broad support for laws regulating public health and public safety. In fact, Minnesota has already enacted modest gun violence prevention measures, such as regulation of unsafe firearms, provisions to prevent access by children to firearms, and state background checks in certain instances. While these have been criticized as inadequate, they go further than gun violence prevention measures in most other states, and they have been implemented without injury to the interests of Minnesota's gun owners.
Second, as President Obama has indicated, law enforcement leaders have critical roles to play in the debate on gun violence, and his meeting with senior Minnesota police officials in Washington in January reflected the deep engagement of Minnesota's law enforcement community. That was also evident last year, when Governor Dayton vetoed proposed state legislation that would have expanded the permissible use of deadly force by private citizens. The opposition by state police and sheriffs' associations played a key role in the debate, and offers a valuable lesson on the benefits of coalition-building with law enforcement officials on means to reduce gun violence.
Third, a recent Public Policy Polling survey suggests that a majority of Minnesotans now support an assault weapons ban. While polls have indicated that Americans support this and a range of other gun violence prevention measures endorsed by the President, the numbers for Minnesota are significant, and create the possibility of political shifts in other states that strongly support gun ownership.
Finally, and notwithstanding the polarization and partisanship in Minnesota and the nation in recent years, Minnesota is a state with a long history of civility in its politics, and strong efforts to reach bipartisan consensus on contentious issues. With a range of new state legislative proposals on gun violence, from expanded background checks, to limits on magazine capacity for firearms, to a ban on assault weapons, that tradition will be tested in Minnesota. The quality of Minnesota's debate will help set the tone for discussions in other states and around the country, with critical implications for public safety in the months and years to come.