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Students wade into gun control debate

<tober 1, Stephen Paddock opened fire on thousands of audience members at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, leaving 58 dead and 546 injured. Time and time again this has happened, yet gun violence is quickly forgotten in the itinerant American national dialogue. For some Carleton students, however, this inclusive dialogue is necessary, and the issue must be directly addressed.

Last spring, CCCE fellows Naomi Borowsky ’18 and Victor Huerta ’18, along with Matt Thibodeau ’18 and Ally Tucker ’18, were chosen as finalists in a policy contest for the college consortium Project Pericles’s policy contest for their gun control advocacy proposal to be implemented in Minnesota. The student group earned $500 to fund lobbying efforts for the 2017-18 academic year.

For the policy-based competition, the foursome composed a letter to Northfield’s state Senator Richard Draheim urging him to “unequivocally oppose the proposed H.F. 238, the Defense of Dwelling and Person Act of 2017 otherwise known as a ‘Stand Your Ground’ bill.” They argued that the bill would justify lethal action with a firearm in cases where the shooter merely “felt threatened.” This justification of “feeling,” say the authors, would protect actions taken out of bias, and therefore pose a particular threat to people of color and immigrants in Minnesota. At the end of the 2017 legislative session, both the House and Senate version of “Stand Your Ground” were in committee and had not reached the floor for votes.

In lobbying against the Defense of Dwelling and Person Act of 2017, the group sought to “discuss implicit bias and racial justice through the lens of gun control,” and bring to light the “disproportionate numbers of people of color being shot,” said Borowsky.

“Stand Your Ground” was part of a cluster of pro-gun legislation proposed in the 2017 Minnesota legislative session, which included a bill eliminating the need for a permit to carry a firearm in public places, and a bill recognizing the validity of other state’s carry permits in the state.

This new bill, referred to by supporters as “constitutional carry,” sought to remove practically all barriers that keep all Minnesotans from legally carrying a weapon in public. Proponents argued such a law would protect against any infringement on a citizen’s right to carry a weapon. However, this so-called “constitutional right to carry” is far from being decided law, and has no Supreme Court ruling precedent. 

For activists like the Carleton group, the greater danger of these bills, and the stronger argument to be made against them, is not about their sheer constitutionality but about their discriminatory implications. By giving regular citizens the right to use greater deadly force, these bills would legally empower the implicit, and often explicit, biases of Minnesota’s white majority.

By taking a stand in this debate, activists at Carleton have become part of a particularly complex political dialogue in Minnesota, where traditional partisan boundaries often fade.

As an institution, Carleton permits gun possession by students for recreational purposes, provided they are stored with security services. According to Director of Security Wayne Eisenhuth, no students have weapons in storage at present, although “there are typically one to two students who bring weapons to campus each year.”

While the Project Pericles group is organizing letter writing campaigns and lining up speakers to halt the expansion of so-called gun rights, just down the street others are working just as hard to hasten such expansions.

The pro-gun advocacy organization Minnesota Gun Rights (MGR) has its “headquarters in Northfield” according to the group’s website. Chief among the organization’s objectives are the passage of both the Defense of Dwelling Act and “Constitutional Carry.” Posts on the MGR website were condemned last year in a letter signed by 11 Republican and five Democrat members of the Minnesota State House.

Countering voices like MGR is the organization Protect Minnesota, with which Carleton activists have a close relationship. According to the organization’s website, the non-profit is not advocating against guns; rather they are advocating against gun violence, seeking to establish policies that balance the protection of the legal and cultural role of guns in the state with the protection of “inalienable rights of all Americans to life, liberty from the threat of gun violence, and the pursuit of happiness in safe communities.”

Given the tumultuous and heated dialogue, student activists at Carleton do not want to merely add to the clamor. According to their mission, the group hopes to “facilitate student engagement with issues of gun violence and racial justice” and “as a community, increase awareness of the varying effects of gun violence”.

CSA Senate recently organized a public forum to discuss the issue. On Wednesday night, about thirty Carleton students gathered in Sayles to discuss gun violence and possible reforms. In small group discussions, forum-goers talked over the definitions of terms being thrown around, such as “common-sense” and “constitutionality,” and questioned the empirical veracity of often-made claims that countries with stringent gun restrictions have fewer gun deaths and gun violence.

Moderator Sharaka Berry then opened the floor to free discussion. The initial conversation focused primarily on the debate between legalization/regulation and restriction/prohibition.

The argument for keeping guns legal and regulated in the United States, articulated primarily by CSA Senator Rohan Mukherjee ’19, generally maintained that restriction and prohibition would drive weapons underground, to an a-legal realm where they can’t be tracked.

This caused some who voiced support for gun restriction policies to cite examples of effective restrictions, Australia (where guns have been heavily regulated since 1996) chief among them. Several students were quick to point out the lack of statistical evidence linking Australia’s 1996 reforms with decreased gun violence.

As the crowd warmed up, more and more new voices joined the conversation. A good portion of the debate centered around moderator Berry’s questions, including “Do good guys with guns stop bad guys with guns?”

To this, skeptics asked whether any evidence for such prevention exists. Mukherjee responded that the common occurrences of gun violence in legal gun-free zones skew the data that could prove the effectiveness of “good guys with guns.” Several students maintained that ‘the more guns in a situation, the more people who will be shot’ and that “guns kill people,” regardless of whether a person is “good.”
Much of the conversation developed organically. At Berry’s suggestion, various speakers introduced possible solutions to gun violence and various dialogues then ensued about the merits of that solution, and the legal, social and practical complications it could encounter. Each addition to the dialogue generally aimed to be constructive in some way rather than overly critical.

Gently correcting or adjusting comments like these marked a theme for the night: forum-goers on both sides of the issue (although the crowd seemed to lean towards stronger gun control policies) sought to nuance the dialogue complicate any notion of easy solutions.

Given the last word of the discussion, Mukherjee remarked that, “the role of guns in American culture was largely missing from this conversation.”

This observation captures the state of the gun issue at Carleton. While there is some contention at this school about whether guns have an intrinsic role to play in society, student discussions often assume the possible abandonment of an individual’s gun rights and grapple pragmatically with the whole gambit of potential solutions, with an eye to efficacy over sheer legality. 

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