MPR News Primer: Guns and gun laws in Minnesota

The Second Amendment preserves the right of Americans to own guns. State and federal laws regulate that use and ownership. A spate of mass shootings in Minnesota and across the country have lawmakers mulling new gun laws. But what are the rules now? How does Minnesota regulate firearms?

What's Minnesota's history on guns and gun laws?

Statewide, many Minnesotans have historical and cultural ties to guns and gun ownership. But gun issues often divide outstate Minnesota and the Twin Cities. The divide almost always provokes a fight.

In 1975, then-Attorney General Warren Spannaus was attacked for his support of handgun waiting periods and background checks in the state's Gun Control Act. The Star Tribune writes:

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The success of "Dump Spannaus" stands as a cautionary tale for gun control-supporting DFLers who run statewide. [Ex-Minneapolis Police Chief] Tony Bouza's call for strict gun laws doomed his 1994 gubernatorial candidacy, and the losing DFL gubernatorial candidates in 1998 and 2002 -- Hubert Humphrey III and Roger Moe -- emphasized their opposition to the NRA-backed concealed weapons bill.

The fight resurfaced in 2003 over the Minnesota Citizens' Personal Protection Act, which essentially required county sheriffs to issue a handgun permit to almost any law-abiding Minnesotan over the age of 21.

Businesses that didn't want guns on their premises were required to announce it publicly, leading to those ubiquitous signs.

Minnesota's place in the gun discussion goes beyond hunting and personal defense. The state is also a major manufacturer of gun ammunition.

Alliant Techsystems has major operations in Minnesota and produces millions of rounds at its Federal Cartridge plant in Anoka. Sales at the company's Shooting and Security division hit a record $1 billion last year.

Interest in guns has leaped in Minnesota the past few years. Here's a look at firearms background checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check system.

Who can own guns and who can't?

We'll draw heavily here from "Firearms Laws in Minnesota: A Guide for Legislators," produced by the Minnesota House Research office.

Generally, federal gun control law governs the licensing and roles of firearms dealers, importers and manufacturers, as well as the interstate transportation of firearms and the taxation and registration of certain firearms.

Federal law also prohibits certain categories of persons (e.g., juveniles, certain criminals, chemically dependent and mentally ill persons, and certain others) from possessing, receiving, shipping, and transporting firearms.

State law mirrors the federal restrictions and includes "peace officers admitted for chemical dependency treatment," domestic violence offenders and "those dishonorably discharged from the armed services."

You need a permit to buy a handgun but you don't need one to buy a rifle. Minnesota has no laws requiring registration of firearms or firearms owners. The law states:

It is not the intent of the legislature to regulate shotguns, rifles and other longguns of the type commonly used for hunting and not defined as pistols or semiautomatic military-style assault weapons, or to place costs of administration upon those citizens who wish to possess or carry pistols or semiautomatic military-style assault weapons lawfully, or to confiscate or otherwise restrict the use of pistols or semiautomatic military-style assault weapons by law-abiding citizens.

Felons are out of luck. The State Supreme Court has ruled that your gun rights can be taken away.

Is there a link between gun ownership and gun violence?

This is the crucial question. But there are no uncontested answers.

The Centers for Disease Control in 1993 concluded:

Despite the widely held belief that guns are effective for protection, our results suggest that they actually pose a substantial threat to members of the household.

People who keep guns in their homes appear to be at greater risk of homicide in the home than people who do not. Most of this risk is due to a substantially greater risk of homicide at the hands of a family member or intimate acquaintance.

We did not find evidence of a protective effect of keeping a gun in the home, even in the small subgroup of cases that involved forced entry.

Several years later the NRA pushed successfully to strip gun violence research money from the CDC's budget, signaling to the agency that it "should tread in this area only at its own peril," the New York Times wrote in 2011.

A 2007 Harvard Law Review study asked, "Would banning firearms reduce murder and suicide?" The data, it concluded, offered no evidence that "a large number of nations with more guns have more death and that nations that have imposed stringent gun controls have achieved substantial reductions in criminal violence (or suicide)."

The American Medical Association's Internal Medicine journal wrote recently that, "a higher number of firearm laws in a state are associated with a lower rate of firearm fatalities in the state" but added that it "could not determine cause-and-effect relationships" and that more study was needed.

This JAMA map shows firearm-related mortality rates, legislative strength scores, and total firearm deaths in the United States, 2007 through 2010.

Minnesota, Wyoming, Alabama and South Carolina are all listed as having relatively strong gun laws but significantly different mortality rates.

Where is the current debate headed?

The tragic killings at a Connecticut elementary school have reignited the national debate over gun control legislation.

In Minnesota, the discussion has shifted away from weapons bans to universal background checks and a focus on keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

DFL Rep. Michael Paymar said he decided not to include an assault weapons ban in his bill after listening to public testimony.

"We had hearings on those bills. They were controversial. I think that some of the language in those bills were maybe, not quite ready for prime time," said Paymar.

There's enough division that even expanded background checks might not make it through the Legislature.

In early March, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a northeast Minnesota DFL-er and long-time gun owner, expressed doubt that background checks on all firearm purchases could pass.

While he supported the measure, he told the Associated Press that opposition from Republicans and fellow rural Democrats will make it "tough to get the votes to pass that."

Is there any room for compromise?

Maybe.

Gun rights advocates say they can support some changes to current gun laws. They've rallied behind a bill from DFL Rep. Debra Hilstrom that would target "straw purchases" -- when people buy guns for others who can't legally own them -- and speed up the process to list mentally ill people barred by law from owning guns into a national database.

For those who'd hoped for an assault weapons ban and universal background checks, the proposed compromise doesn't go nearly far enough.

After months of battling, though, it represents some kind of common ground over gun rights and gun laws.