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Obama's action on guns may have little effect, in Minnesota and elsewhere

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Barack Obama with Joe Biden
An emotional President Barack Obama, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, pauses as he recalled the 20 first-graders killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, while speaking in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday.
Jacquelyn Martin | AP

It's unclear whether the firearms measures announced by President Obama on Tuesday will have much effect in Minnesota or elsewhere. But his comments won praise from supporters who welcomed his willingness to act in the absence of action by Congress. 

At the top of the president's list is an attempt to strengthen background checks. Obama made clear that people "engaged in the business" of selling firearms have to be licensed and must conduct background checks on buyers.

Andrew Rothman, president of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, said that's already federal law.

"If you're in the business of selling firearms and you don't have a federal license, that is a crime," Rothman said. "That's always been the case and it's going to continue to be the case."

In Minnesota, as in many other states, it's legal for a person to sell a gun without submitting the buyer to a background check. That wouldn't change under the president's executive action. Rothman said it's not clear how many guns a person would have to sell before he or she was considered to be "in the business."

Many people who sell their guns are collectors and enthusiasts, Rothman said, not traffickers.

"Someone who has a collection and cycles through parts of that collection, gets tired of something and sells it and buys something new," he said, "these people are not in the business, by any stretch of the imagination."

The president's attempt to strengthen the background-check system also includes a proposal to increase staffing at the FBI. Last year, the FBI conducted more than 23 million background checks — the most since the National Instant Background Check System was implemented in 1998. 

John Monson, a licensed firearms dealer and owner of Bill's Gun Shop in Robbinsdale, Minn., welcomed the prospect of more resources for the FBI. He said the instant background check system isn't always instant. 

"It's understaffed and we often run into long delay times," he said. "It's not uncommon for us to be on the phone for an hour, hour and a half waiting for a second check on an individual."

Under federal law, if a background check can't be completed within three days, the dealer can still sell the gun — even without a finished check.  

Monson said he doesn't think the president's proposals will do much to reduce crimes committed with guns. Nor does he see them as a threat to the Second Amendment rights of lawful people.

Advocates for stricter gun laws, like Marit Brock, say it was time for the president to do something. Brock is the volunteer leader for the Minnesota chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. The group was formed the day after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn., when 20 children and six adults were killed by a single gunman.

"I'm very encouraged and I'm really thankful to the president for taking these executive actions to reduce gun violence," Brock said. "And I'm glad we're talking about it. And I know that there is more that we can do, and more we can do in Minnesota, to keep us all safe."

Brock said she and other members of the group are pushing for Minnesota legislators to do more during the next session. At the top of their agenda is a law to close the private gun-sale loophole.

"It's perfectly legal for an individual to sell a gun to another individual," she said. "And you can do that in the McDonald's parking lot, in the middle of the day, and it's legal and there's no background check required." 

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he's interested in passing legislation to close that gap. Most Americans, including gun owners, would agree, he said.

"If everyone voted on that single issue it would be strongly supported by the American people," he said.  

Minnesota has already taken steps in other areas mentioned by the president, such as preventing people who are committed as mentally ill and dangerous from possessing guns. In 2013, lawmakers approved more than $7 million to improve mental health care for teenagers. The state courts also digitized nearly 70,000 court commitment records and added them to the background check system.

Correction (Jan. 5, 2015): John Monson's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. It has been corrected.