Last Tuesday, I attended the State House’s first hearing on gun violence prevention bills, which would, among other things, require more consistent background checks for all gun sales and transfers, and ban certain assault weapons and the sale of high-capacity magazines. I went genuinely curious to hear from those who oppose the proposed legislation, hoping that they would rationally and responsibly offer counter-arguments that might move this legislation forward, likely with modifications that would make it more palatable to gun rights advocates.
I also went early. A few weeks ago, when I showed up a few minutes before a legislative hearing on the Homeowner Bill of Rights, I was able to find a seat. But on Tuesday, I anticipated that the crowd would be much larger, so I showed up at 9:30, a full thirty minutes before the hearing was set to start.
Well, 200-300 members of the NRA and the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance had shown up even earlier, and as I descended the steps of the State Office Building, I entered a sea of buttons telling me that self defense is a human right.
Immediately, and for reasons I can’t fully understand, I become incredibly uneasy. While I am normally excited by citizens organizing and rallying for their beliefs, I somehow felt intimidated by this group. Perhaps it was because, for the most part, it was composed of burly men, a handful of whom looked me up and down when I took off my coat and revealed my “Minnesotans against being shot” sticker. Or, more likely, it was because, as an arguably naïve gun violence prevention advocate, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Are all these people carrying guns?”
Guns scare me—a lot. They make me want to bite my tongue and look at the ground. And that is exactly what I did throughout the hearing, as I sat in one of the many overflow rooms, surrounded by gun rights supporters. I should tell you that a few (but not all) snickered at the testimony of a 17-year-old whose father was killed by gun violence. And later on in the week, when a coworker attended another hearing and asked those around him not to laugh at the notion that higher-capacity magazines can kill more people, he was warned to “shut up.” Which he did, because guns scare him, too.
If there is one thing that I have in common with the NRA and the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance it is that I love freedom and democracy. But to some (I repeat: some) members of those organizations, freedom means completely unrestricted access to guns, and democracy means delivering death threats to legislators who support the proposed legislation. To me, freedom means freedom from fear, and democracy means being able to say what I believe, without being told to shut up, or feeling compelled to stare at the ground and keep my opinion to myself.
As this legislation continues to make its way through our State Legislature, I pray that my brand of freedom and democracy will prevail. I pray that accounts of these hearings, where gun rights advocates far out-organized and out-numbered supporters of the legislation, and reminders of the actual numbers (a February 5 poll from a KSTP-Survey USA shows that roughly 60 percent of people support bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and 75 percent support universal background checks) will motivate others to get involved in this debate. I pray that the deliberations will not be dominated by fear, but instead by respect, logic, and compromise.
We must change the tone of this debate, and we must change it now. We must involve more people who, like me, want safer communities and fewer guns on the street, just as much as we must involve gun-owners who would never laugh at a victim of gun violence or tell a fellow citizen to shut up.