As Obama visits, Minneapolis eyes police relationship with firearms makers

Gun summit
Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau, center, with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, left, and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, right, talked about stopping gun violence at a press conference during a Regional Gun Summit Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 at The Depot Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

President Barack Obama planned to be in Minneapolis on Monday to push for tougher gun laws and highlight some of the things Minneapolis has done to reduce gun violence.

He comes here as Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and other mayors from across the country are looking at a way to put direct pressure on gun makers.

In December, the White House recognized the city's youth violence initiative. And earlier this year, police chief Janee Harteau and Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek met with the president to discuss gun violence.

Minneapolis had 41 homicides in 2012. That's slightly more than the previous year, but much lower than larger Midwestern cities like Kansas City, Mo., which had 108 killings.

Harteau said Minneapolis officers have been particularly aggressive in getting firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. More than 650 guns were taken off the streets last year, mostly during traffic stops. But despite the city's efforts, the supply of illegal guns in Minneapolis remains a persistent problem. That reality has city leaders now considering new strategies.

CITY'S GUN-MAKER RELATIONSHIPS EXAMINED

Rybak recently traveled to the nation's capitol with other mayors to lobby for stricter gun laws. While there, he was reminded that his efforts will likely be rebuffed by the gun lobby; but along with the other mayors, he began exploring an idea for the city to have an impact on gun makers.

"We should really question whether the companies we are buying guns and ammunition from are going to Washington and working with us, or fighting against us on those issues," he said.

Over the last eight years, for example, Minneapolis has spent nearly $800,000 on guns and ammunition for its police department, purchasing shotguns for its officers from Remington, and directing officers to buy pistols from Smith and Wesson.

Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett says his city's police department has spent just under $1.2 million on weapons over the past two years, also through business relationships with Remington and Smith and Wesson.

Rybak and Barrett have steered clear of the word 'boycott' when asked about their tactical options in relationship to gun makers. But Barrett says mayors need to gather a coalition large enough to attract the attention of the gun industry from a business standpoint.

"If there are more and more communities and more and more mayors involved in this, that does make our voice that much louder and stronger," he said.

Minneapolis police
Police officers make a traffic stop on North Washington Avenue in Minneapolis in a September 2010 file photo. In 2012 Minneapolis officers recovered more than 650 guns. Police officials say most guns were found during traffic stops.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

The mayors have their work cut out for them, says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. The firearms business is a multi-billion dollar industry that doesn't want to see laws passed that could shrink its already declining customer base, he said. Despite recent increases in retail sales, the number of households with at least one gun has been declining over the last 30 years.

"So what's happening is the traditional gun-buying segment, essentially white males, they're getting older, they're dying off. And to borrow a phrase from the tobacco industry, there are no replacement shooters to come to take their place," he said.

Would mayors taking their business elsewhere impact the bottom lines of gun manufacturers? According to its latest filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Smith and Wesson made more than $400 million dollars in sales in 2012; of that revenue, 7 percent came from city, state and federal law enforcement

Representatives for Smith and Wesson and Remington didn't respond to calls for comment.

The gun industry's strongest ally is the National Rifle Association. NRA president David Keene spoke in St. Paul last month and said the way to reduce gun crime is to focus on bad people, not the guns.

"Our position is that a gun is an inanimate object. And that it's the person who misuses it, just like a person who uses a hammer to kill someone, is the responsible party. It isn't the tool, it's the person who wields the tool," he said.

MINNESOTA LAWMAKERS JOIN DEBATE

The president is pushing for a federal ban on assault-style weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines and for background checks for all gun sales. In Minnesota, lawmakers in Minnesota are considering a range of regulations as well.

The House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee has scheduled three days of hearings on several gun-related bills beginning Tuesday. Among the various measures is a call for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, a requirement for mental health screening for gun permits, and taking away the gun rights of more convicted felons.

DFL House Speaker Paul Thissen, of Minneapolis, said he still doesn't know how far lawmakers want to go on gun legislation this session, but the hearings this week will start the discussion.

"I think that there are actually areas where we're going to get some broad consensus around things we can do that will make a difference to keep our public places more safe and to deal with the issues of gun violence," Thissen said. "But I don't know exactly what the contours of that will look like yet."

House Republican Deputy Minority Leader Jenifer Loon, of Eden Prairie, said her side of aisle is concerned about public safety, but there will be a lot of tough questions about the DFL-led bills.

"Overall we're going to want to know if there's going to be changes in the access to guns or Second Amendment rights," she said. "What is the efficacy of those proposals? How effective are they? How effective have they been shown to be? I think those are some of the questions are members will be asking."

The House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee has hearings scheduled Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. But no votes are planned. A Senate panel is poised to hold a similar series of hearings on gun bills later this month.

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MPR News reporter Tim Pugmire contributed to this report.

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