Something about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut has taken the country’s ongoing gun debate into new territory, including an unprecedented push for new firearms legislation in Minnesota.
Maybe it’s the thought of 20 young children in Newtown being shot at close range as they stood stunned and confused in a place where they thought they were safe. It could be the idea of innocent teachers losing their lives as they attempted to save those children. Or it might be the fact that the man who killed his mother before the rampage, and himself after, had mental health problems that should have kept him from having access to the weapons he used.
“It was so horrifying with all those little children,” said Diane Norland, North Mankato city councilwoman. “It was so hideous thinking about the teachers who used their bodies to protect the kids.
“It was so horrible that maybe it finally shook people from their apathy. It’s tragic that it took that.”
There have been two major incidents involving guns in North Mankato since the Sandy Hook shooting Dec. 14.
Police found several guns, numerous loaded gun magazines, loose ammunition, methamphetamine and a large amount of marijuana in a North Ridge neighborhood house Jan. 20. The owner of the house, 29-year-old Michael Donald Caya, was living there with his wife and two young children. He allegedly told police he was stockpiling weapons to protect his family and neighbors from the government.
On Jan. 17 an elderly man was shot and killed by police after a standoff at his North Mankato residence at the corner of Lee Boulevard and Lo Ray Drive. Police said they were checking on his welfare and called in a tactical response team because the man had several guns and was making threats. Lloyd Hodgson Tschohl, 83, was shot after he came out of the house firing two handguns at officers.
In St. Paul two weeks ago, state legislators spent three days listening to testimony on proposed gun control legislation during what was dubbed “Gun Week.” The proposals include bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, giving law enforcement more access to mental health records, requiring more background checks and increasing penalties for gun crimes.
Norland admits she has an idealistic view about gun restrictions. If she had her way, no one except the military and law enforcement would have access to military-style rifles and any handguns. And she knows there are others on the opposite side of the spectrum, such as state Rep. Tony Cornish of Good Thunder, who don’t want any infringements on their right to bear arms.
Those people also have been moved to action as the gun debate has heated up. At Vantage Point Shooting Range in Kasota, classes required for obtaining a permit to carry a handgun have been filling up a month before they happen. In the past, the classes would reach a limit of about 25 people a few days before the class started, said instructor Rick Bruels.
“Now they’re full weeks in advance,” he said. “Maybe people are waking up. It has nothing to do with guns. It has to do with taking away personal rights.”
But there are some signs that legislators will at least find some middle ground this time around, bringing changes that didn’t come after other recent gun tragedies that caught national attention. Many gun advocates who are usually against firearm restrictions say they are open to more background checks and finding ways to keep guns away from people who are potential danger to themselves or others.
Guys with guns
It’s noon on Thursday and the usual group of guys has gathered at Vantage Point with a diverse collection of handguns and rifles.
John Greenough, a Lake Crystal farmer, steadies the semi-automatic handgun in his hand and rapidly fires 10 shots at a target about 20 feet down range. As he reels the target toward him, it’s clear Greenough is a crack shot. All 10 holes are within a few inches of each other and only one is partially outside the small target area. He’s been doing this for a long time.
In the firing lane to Greenough’s left is a retired teacher who doesn’t want to give his name because he is concerned about being the target of gun thieves. To Greenough’s right is Blue Earth County Commissioner Will Purvis, a former sheriff’s deputy. Jerry Cornish, a retired Amboy implement dealer who also happens to be lawmaker and gun advocate Tony Cornish’s brother, is in the lane beyond Purvis. They compare their hobby to bowling, billiards and throwing darts.
“We get together at noon on Thursdays in the winter to do some shooting for an hour,” Purvis said. “It’s just a fun way to pass the time.”
None of these shooting veterans likes the idea of any more restrictions on what types of firearms, ammunition or magazines can be purchased by law-abiding gun owners.
Banning high-capacity magazines won’t help because experienced shooters can swap one smaller magazine for another in a couple of seconds, Greenough said. Purvis points out Minnesota already leads the nation with its requirements for background checks.
“I’m pretty comfortable with the background checks Minnesota is doing,” Purvis said.
Bruels, who’s in the lobby pitching an idea for an assault rifle shooting day to Vantage Point owner Marie Borglum, compares banning certain guns to banning swimming pools. People who want to train for the Olympics can still practice in carefully controlled and regulated pools, he says. And the argument that people will still drown in lakes and rivers just proves his point, he said, because people will still be shot by criminals if everyone else is kept from owning guns.
“Banning swimming pools and banning guns won’t keep children safe,” Bruels said.
Saying law-abiding citizens should be allowed to protect themselves, Purvis also reminds everyone that he has firsthand experience with using a firearm to defend himself against an armed criminal. It was April 16, 1990, when Purvis interrupted a North Mankato bank robbery. He confronted the robber as the man attempted to escape in a pickup. Standing about 6 feet apart with the pickup between them, each man shot three times. The robber missed. Purvis didn’t.
“I actually felt the wind of one of the bullets go by my head,” he said.
Mental health issue
Both Todd Miller, Mankato director of public safety, and Brad Peterson, Blue Earth County sheriff, said they are comfortable with Minnesota’s existing firearm laws. However, they also said they back a Minnesota Sheriffs Association proposal that would provide more access to mental health records for firearm background checks.
“We don’t know that information now because of laws that protect medical data,” Miller said. “When you have someone who has mental health issues, they should be prohibited from owning guns.
“I think we need to do a lot better job of dealing with and reporting mental health problems. We also need to do more with families being willing to step forward. How many times, when you look at a national incident or heinous crime, people say, ‘Oh, we knew something was wrong.’”
Julie Soper doesn’t own a gun because she really doesn’t like them much, but she also believes it’s a constitutional right to own guns. The president of Mankato’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness also said people have a right to privacy. She doesn’t support giving law enforcement anymore access to mental health records.
That could keep people from stepping forward and asking for help if they’re concerned about their mental health. Soper pointed out that one in four people have mental illness, and those people are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators. Some have already been in bad situations with police, she said.
“Opening these records would be more adverse than positive,” Soper said. “People who don’t understand mental illness get preconceived notions. Just because you are diagnosed with a mental illness doesn’t mean you’re violent and I don’t think opening private records would be helpful in preventing crimes that involve guns.
“I think they are simplifying the problem. I think people are trying to find a simple answer for a very complex issue.”
The situation is complex, Peterson said. He also said it will be more challenging to find a way to take guns away from someone who is already a gun owner, but is in a situation where their mental health is deteriorating. Should a doctor treating a patient be required to ask questions about gun ownership and initiate a process to have the guns removed? Would a doctor send a report to law enforcement or ask for a court order to have the guns taken away?
“Can you make that all happen?” Peterson said. “I don't know. I would think we would have a hard time doing that.”
Family members could help by taking it upon themselves to restrict access to firearms when they suspect someone is having problems, Miller and Peterson said. Friends and family notice changes others don’t, and can attempt to put firearms in a safe place for awhile, if necessary.
Peterson and Miller also said prosecutors could do a better job of enforcing existing gun laws.
When a felon is charged with a new crime involving firearms, the charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm is often dismissed in plea agreements where people plead guilty to a more serious crime.
“A lot of gun problems come from people who shouldn’t have guns,” Miller said. “It’s really hard to keep guns out of their hands. They buy them illegally or they steal them or they get them elsewhere.
“When we arrest them for another crime and also possession of a firearm, more times than I like to count, they plea to the first crime, then the gun charge doesn’t go anywhere. We don’t get any support on the prosecution side.”
It isn’t uncommon, even if someone pleads guilty to two crimes in a plea agreement, to have the sentences for both crimes run at the same time. So dropping the charge usually doesn’t reduce any prison or jail time, said Assistant Blue Earth County Attorney Pat McDermott.
There are other reasons the charges are dropped, too, he said. Sometimes a gun is found at a scene where there are two or more felons and they all deny having it. If there’s no DNA or fingerprints to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone had the gun, the charges are dropped because they won’t hold up at trial, McDermott said.
Councilwoman Norland agrees that law enforcement agencies and others doing firearm background checks should have more access to mental health information. The concern about mental health and access to guns are why North Mankato now has a police officer sitting in a room near the City Council Chambers watching meetings live on a monitor, she said.
“That supports my argument again that yes there are people around our communities who haven’t been identified who are a danger,” Norland said. “When they get guns, it can be frightening. We all know people in our community who we worry about. And by ‘we’ I mean everybody, not just City Council meetings.
“We’re very ignorant about mental health issues, violence and what triggers violence in people. We need to talk to the experts. I’m not sure that’s something legislation can fix. I think it’s more about education.”
Norland can’t understand why the mother of the shooter at Sandy Hook would have taken her son to a gun range and provided him access to her gun collection. She also doesn’t understand why that woman, or anyone, needs to have high-powered, rapid-firing weapons that can fire a dozen shots or more before being reloaded.
“I have very strong opinions about guns,” she said. “It’s my belief that there’s no reason in the world for ordinary citizens to have guns that were designed for wars to kill people. The major problem is attitudes in our society and the fears that the gun advocates promote. In my mind, the gun advocates promote fear.
“I think that we as a society need to take a look at is the destructive attitudes we have about guns. You don’t help a troubled child shoot better; you get the guns out of house.”
Norland knows it would be difficult to ban certain guns because there are so many guns that are already out there. A good start would be to restrict gun sales to licensed dealers who are required to do background checks and stop gun sales over the Internet and by unlicensed sellers at gun shows, she said.
“People will have a hissy fit about that, but that’s part of the problem in this country.”
There is one thing that Norland, the guys at the gun range and Blue Earth County’s top law enforcement officers agree on. They all said the media need to take some responsibility for the mass shootings that draw national attention.
Miller said he realizes no studies directly linking shooter video games to mass shootings or violent behavior, but he does believe those games and the amount of violence on television and in the movies does have an influence on young people.
And Greenough said large media corporations can’t have it both ways. On one hand media executives say it’s worth millions of dollars to buy commercial time during the Super Bowl to have an influence on what type of cola someone will drink, he said. But, when violence in television shows, movies and games is discussed, the same people say that doesn’t have any influence on someone.
Norland echoed that assessment.
“Both kids and adults, we learn from TV, we learn from video games, we learn from the people around us,” she said. “We learn all the time.”