Last week marked six months since April 16 and the shootings at Virginia Tech in which 32 people, including the gunman, were killed. What has changed about federal firearm legislation since that day? Nothing. However, new bills regarding gun purchasing regulations and the “right-to-defend” statute are pending for the upcoming legislative session here in Minnesota. Here are some of the issues that will be on the table for legislators.
The Shoot First Bill:
Also known as the “Castle Doctrine,” this bill would greatly expand the right to defend oneself from “life-threatening force” by shooting to kill. It eliminates the accountability of someone who shoots and claims self-defense in the face of someone attempting to enter “by force” (This could include the attempted entrance through a gate of mail delivery people, Girl Scouts, canvassers, and police officers, among others). When someone approaches the home, he or she is “presumed to do so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving a life-threatening level of force,” and a homeowner could legally take that person’s life (source: Citizens for a Safer Minnesota website).
In homes, public places and cars, the Shoot First bill eliminates any responsibility to try to physically escape harm before resorting to shooting. The shooter would not be legally bound to a trial that would investigate whether or not the person actually had reason to feel that their life was threatened or had legitimate reason to shoot to kill. The Minnesota Police and Peace Police Officers’ Association, among other groups, opposes this bill. Mankato Public Safety Director Jerry Huettl has called this “one of the most ill-though-out, worst pieces of legislation” he’s ever seen.
Currently, only people who buy firearms from licensed gun dealers (retail gun shops) are required to have a criminal background check before the purchase. But approximately 50% of handguns are transferred in markets other than the retail shops – in gun shows, garage sales and flea markets. More than 100,000 firearms are sold at the 4,000 gun shows held every year in this country with virtually no record of the transaction or the buyer’s criminal background. Gun shows are not subject to any federal regulations. Proponents of universal criminal background checks also promote universal mental health background checks, as this would also keep firearms out of the hands of those most likely to use them unsafely.
According to a University of Minnesota Center for Survey Research poll, 85% of Minnesotans favors background checks at gun shows. The numbers show that Minnesotans support stronger firearm purchase regulations, but somewhere there’s a communication gap between citizens’ concerns for better safety regulations and the legislators making decisions on Capitol Hill. It’s time for legislators to hear from their constituents who do care about stronger gun purchasing regulations. Let’s make it clear that no one is trying to take away anybody’s hunting rifle, but that we need to put into action some type of preventive system to keep firearms from falling into the hands of criminals or those with mental illnesses. Clearly, there is a disparity between what Minnesotans want in terms of safety and what the legislators think they want. If they knew that their constituents supported them, perhaps they would have the courage to vote against the formidably wealthy gun lobby. The statistics show that supporting stronger background checks in Minnesota is not in fact “political suicide,” despite the clout and money of the opposition, but rather in line with what most people want.
As the winter session begins in the Minnesota legislature, the Campus Alliance will be tabling with phones and letters to contact our representatives in St. Paul about these bills. The thing about our country’s addiction to firearms and the sadly unexceptional occurrence of senseless tragedies from gun violence is that access to firearms is based in our very own state and federal laws. And those votes can change when legislators hear the voices of constituents, in letters and on the phone. In the October 10 New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman wrote about the influence college students need to be having in this country: “Generation Q may be too quiet, too online, for its own good, and for the country’s own good. When I think of the huge budget deficit, Social Security deficit and ecological deficit that our generation is leaving this generation, if they are not spitting mad, well, then they’re just not paying attention.” I’d add the unbelievable rate of gun death in this country to that list. We need to be mad and then talk to and influence our legislators – because our firearm laws can be smarter and safer.
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