Updated: 02/07/2013 7:55 AM KSTP.com By: Mark Saxenmeyer
The gun control debate raged on again Wednesday as overflow crowds came to watch state legislative hearings at the Minnesota state capitol. For two hours, advocates and opponents spoke before the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee about a bill that would ban the manufacture, transfer and possession of assault weapons.
The session was drama-filled from the start.
National Rifle Association representative Chris Rager called the bill "un-American."
DFL Rep.Joe Mullery responded, "I don't think it's appropriate calling them un-American," referring to the bill's authors.
Former FBI agent John Egelhof told the committee, "Whole communities in our country have grieved. Only the gun industry has benefited."
Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan's added, "The fact is that annual mass shootings have doubled since the national assault weapons ban expired in 2004."
But Republican Rep. Jim Newberger, speaking to all the proponents of the legislation, countered, "You're going to turn thousands of law abiding citizens into criminals if you pass this thing."
Yet perhaps the most surprising moment was when safety instructors from the Department of Natural Resources asked to bring out hunting rifles as they made their case against the bill.
DFL Committee Chairman Rep. Michael Paymar said, "I'm not particularly happy about it." But he then asked the DNR representatives, "It's all been cleared by security?"
"Ah, yes, sir," answered one instructor. "We have followed the approval procedures."
Some of the most compelling testimony cam from average, every-day Minnesota residents, like Edina mom Jane Kay. "Enough children have died," she said, referring to December's Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. "Assault weapons are mainly used on the battlefield. Our schools should not be battlefields." After the hearing ended, she told reporters, "I think this is our moment. I think the faces of those six and seven year olds are going to stay with us."
And then there was the surprising testimony of John Footh of St. Paul.
"On the 4th of July, 2009," Footh said, while holding a photo of his son Gunnar, "we were visiting family when my son was shot and almost killed on the street outside my brother's house."
Footh said rhe man responsible was angry that his son and other kids were shooting off firecrackers. The man was arrested, convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.
"It was unforgivable," Footh said, "but no amount of gun control, no amount of regulation, no amount of background checks, no amount of law would have ever stopped this guy from making the bad drunken decision he made that night. My son, thank God, made a full recovery."
And now Footh and his son enjoy shooting on a rifle range together.
"Why would you take away from me and my son our constitutional right to keep and bear arms?" he asked the committee.
After the hearing, Footh said his opinion on the issue wouldn't have changed--even if his son had died.
"This legislation wouldn't have stopped that crime," Footh said. "And this legislation is not going to stop the next crime that happens in a school shooting. A criminal is not going to obey the law. That's the bottom line."
Tim Jezierski of Two Harbors told the committee about the call he received one night from his wife, when he was out of town. He explained how a man was threatening to kill both her, and their sons. He told his wife to call police. But when she did, Jezierski said an officer told her there was little law enforcers could do.
Jazierski paraphrased his wife's conversation with authorities that night. "So she said, 'what you're saying is once we've been killed you will find and look for who killed us?' And he said yes."
Jazierski added, "It is not law enforcement's job to protect each one of us. It is our right under the Constitution to protect ourselves through the second amendment and the use of these guns."
Vicki Stewart, a mother from St. Paul, was among those in the overflow crowd who watched the proceedings on monitors in extra rooms. Afterwards, she said she and the other concerned mothers she sat with had tried to listen objectively to opponents of the legislation. "Some of what they say makes a lot a sense," she said. "And I think that's why we struggle with it. It's like, 'Oh, that makes sense. I didn't know that'."
But in the end, she said her opinions didn't change much. "We need to make sure that guns aren't getting into the hands of people that perpetrate such horrible, horrible crimes."
The hearing will continue Thursday morning, and evening. Among the next bills up for discussion: one that would ban large capacity magazines for firearms--devices that accept more than ten rounds.
Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org