To: Richard Stanek
Hennepin County Sheriff
Dear Sheriff Stanek:
A remarkable investigative report by Paul McEnroe and Glenn Howatt in the Star Tribune in January detailed how Christian Philip Oberender acquired an arsenal of 13 guns, including semi-automatic rifles, an AK-47, various shotguns and handguns, and a .50-caliber Desert Eagle. In 1995, Oberender, then 14, waited in ambush and murdered his mother with a shotgun.
So shocking that it made—in old newspaper lingo—a headline above the fold was the fact that Oberender had written a letter to his dead mother in which he detailed his desire to kill people and stating that “the monster want out.” Many of his guns were purchased legally.
The investigative report went on to note that 84 people who had previously been committed as mentally ill have been charged since 2000 with illegal gun possession or assault. These figures clearly underestimate the problem. Needless to say, the newspaper’s investigative report discovered that Oberender’s mental health history was never entered into any state background database.
Federal background checks are limited to sales by licensed gun dealers. Approximately 40 percent of all firearm sales take place at gun shows and in private transactions, thus bypassing the federal background check entirely. And even within the federal system, there is no limit on the number of guns that a person can purchase at any one time; law enforcement agencies refer to this as the problem of “straw buyers.” Minnesota law (M.S. 624.7132) specifically states that there is no limit on the number of pistols or semi-automatic military-style assault weapons a person may acquire and, further, goes on to prohibit the keeping of any records of such transfers.
We have had too many headlines about gun violence by the mentally ill—public officials being gunned down in Arizona, the massacre of schoolchildren and teachers in Connecticut, the Accent Signage shootings here in Minneapolis—not to address these problems. This country has an extensive history with guns. The continued western expansion during the early formation of this country was often accompanied by forcible taking (frequently at gunpoint). Our popular culture and the persistence of the Western genre in popular media is a constant reminder of this heritage.(“God made men, but Samuel Colt made them equal.”)
But in any event, the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has recently been interpreted by the Supreme Court to find an individual right in the ownership of guns. The Minnesota Constitution is one of only six state constitutions not to contain a provision outlining firearms ownership. But the court, and common sense, clearly indicate that such rights can be defined in light of the public interest.
Eight of the nine mass shootings in this country during the last year, including the one here in Minneapolis, were committed by men with histories of mental illness. Clearly our efforts to treat the mentally ill should get more attention. But that is a long-term problem and in the short-term, such individuals should not be allowed to own or possess guns. All gun sales and all gun transfers should be entered into a database. Mental health commitments should be accurately recorded. The federal database should be accurate and complete—not voluntary and slipshod.
Requiring and recording serial numbers on all firearms is not a step down the slippery slope of government tyranny; every car in America is similarly registered and recorded, with no tyrannical restriction on the people’s right to travel among the states. By the same token, 50-bullet magazines are hardly constitutionally mandated; six states currently limit the size of magazines. The federal government, in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, has limited shotguns to no more than three shells when hunting water fowl; ducks should not be better protected than people. The Second Amendment does not prohibit banning a wide variety of currently existing weapons, such as machine guns, “street sweepers,” and other fully automatic military-style assault weapons.
A recent summary by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows that the actual number of hunters in this country remains under 7 percent of the population. With the growing urbanization of America, it’s unlikely that this number will increase significantly. If we do not take sensible steps such as accurate databases and registration and recording of sales and guns, the growing backlash will very likely erode our Second Amendment freedoms. Thank you, Sheriff, and all of you in law enforcement for speaking out.
Vance K. Opperman
Vance K. Opperman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.