On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

Gun control: Deep divisions among Minn. DC delegation

Share story

AR-15
Jason Zielinski shows a customer an AR-15 style rifle at Freddie Bear Sports sporting goods store on Dec. 17, 2012 in Tinley Park, Ill. Gun sales have surged recently with people buy guns for personal protection following the mass shooting in Connecticut and gun enthusiasts buying guns because they fear a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The massacre of 20 students and six teachers at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., as once again put gun control on the agenda of Congress.

The school shooting, the latest in a series of gun massacres over the past several years, has some members of Congress rethinking their stance on guns.

Among them is U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat from Minnesota's 1st District who received the National Rifle Association's endorsement this year after voting for many of the influential organization's priorities. Democrats who represent rural, socially conservative districts like his often vote the same way.

Related: Gun control debate expected at Minn. Capitol, too

But Walz, a former teacher and father of young children, said he was shocked by the massacre at the Sandy Hook elementary school and is now willing to consider proposals to ban assault-style weapons and large ammunition clips.

"It's not as if there have never been lines in the sand and things you can't own," he said. "If we as a society, because of the nature of where we're at, we have to take a look at that, I certainly want that to be at the table."

Still, in Minnesota's congressional delegation, there is a big divide about what to do. There is also silence from some who have touted familiarity with firearms in a common campaign tactic.

In an interview she may now be regretting, Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota's 6th District told a conservative radio host in Iowa last year that her favorite gun was an assault weapon that is one of the nation's top sellers.

"My favorite gun is an AR-15 because you can be so accurate with it," Bachmann said.

"There is no legitimate purpose for military-style weaponry to be floating all over this country."

That's the same weapon police say Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook shootings. Police say he also killed his mother. Bachmann did not respond to requests for comment.

The strongest support for tighter gun laws has long come from politicians who represent liberal, urban districts where gun ownership rates tend to be lower and gun violence more common. 

That's no different in Minnesota.

Not long after the shootings, U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison, Democrats who represent St. Paul and Minneapolis, both called for banning assault-style weapons and large clips of ammunition.

Ellison said he supports Americans' right to own guns that they keep at home or for hunting, but opposes the sale of more powerful weapons.

"There is no legitimate purpose for military style weaponry to be floating all over this country," he said.

He's joined by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat and former prosecutor.

In a statement issued by her office Tuesday, Klobuchar backed a ban on assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines.

"The sort of knee-jerk reaction to say, 'We just have to pass a bill and make this stop' doesn't work."

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, also a Democrat, said in a statement that he has supported the ammunition clip ban in the past but was still finding out more before issuing further proposals.

Both senators sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is likely to hold hearings on gun violence early next year.

But Republicans such as U.S. Rep. John Kline say  there's little evidence that a ban on assault weapons like the one that was in place between 1994 and 2004 would be effective.

"It's not clear -- you'd have to go back and do an in-depth analysis -- that that resulted in a safer America," said Kline, who represents the 2nd District.

Kline, whose Washington office is filled with mounted hunting trophies, said he wants to see hearings on the mental health issues that reportedly afflicted Lanza and past mass shooters. 

What he doesn't want to see is legislation right away.

"The sort of knee-jerk reaction to say, 'We just have to pass a bill and make this stop' doesn't work," Kline said. "It really takes a more thoughtful, comprehensive approach to try and do something about the violence in our society."

Kline didn't offer any specific ideas about what such an approach would involve.

While no Republicans in the House or Senate have publicly announced they're changing their pro-gun stance, a few prominent Democratic supporters of guns have, including U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia.

That leaves Keith Ellison optimistic that some kind of restrictions on powerful weaponry might be possible.

"There's a number of members of Congress who have open minds on this -- who are for gun rights but who also are coming to the conclusion that sane, sensible gun safety is warranted," he said.

But longtime pro-gun activist Joseph Olson, a law professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, doesn't expect Congress to put any new restrictions on gun owners, even though this latest massacre is horrific.

"In two weeks, the polling will go back down and the focus will be on the mental health system that let this individual free on society," Olson said.

That is, unless this latest massacre represents a permanent change in how Americans view gun ownership.