If anything represents the worst fears of Americans these days, it’s the sight of a school building full of police officers, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers. But not this time. President Barack Obama visited a former school in Minneapolis Monday to stand before more than 100 uniformed cops in the hopes of heading off another school massacre or other mass-shooting of the kind that has rocked the country in recent months.
Obama visited a Minneapolis police training facility in North Minneapolis — the building was Hamilton Elementary School until 2005 — to make an emotional plea for what he called “common-sense steps to reduce gun violence” in the hopes of saving lives.
The President, speaking to a small crowd of invited guests and media in the former school gymnasium — a wall still emblazoned with a graphic that said, “Hamiliton Hornets” — called for background checks on every gun buyer and a renewed ban on military-style assault rifles as well as ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds. The country, he said, has an “obligation” to try to reduce the number of gun victims, and to make sure that the nation’s police forces are not “out-gunned on the streets.”
At the same time, Obama acknowledged that no number of new laws can entirely prevent the death toll produced by guns, estimated at more than 30,000 a year.
“We may not be able to prevent every massacre or random shooting,” Obama said during his 13-minute speech. “No law or set of laws can keep our children completely safe. But if there’s even one thing we can do, if there’s just one life we can save, we’ve got an obligation to try…We don’t have to agree on everything to agree it’s time to do something. That’s my main message here today.”
The president said that reducing gun violence is a bipartisan issue: “Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are working on a bill that would ban anyone from selling a gun to somebody legally prohibited from owning one,” he said. “That’s common sense. There’s no reason we can’t get that done. That is not a liberal idea or a conservative idea; it’s not a Democratic or Republican idea — that is a smart idea. We want to keep those guns out of hands of folks who shouldn’t have them.”
Despite those comments, the president’s visit featured a Who’s Who of Minnesota Democrats, from Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar to Gov. Mark Dayton, Mayors R.T. Rybak and Chris Coleman, assorted congressmen, state senators and representatives and even former Vice President Walter F. Mondale. There was not a visible Republican on hand — or a conservative, rural Democrat — despite the fact that important bi-partisan efforts in the capitols of Minnesota and the nation are about to begin in the effort to reduce gun violence, and despite Obama’s appeal to all Americans, regardless of political party or their positions on other issues.
“The only way we can reduce gun violence in this country is if the American people decide it’s important,” he said. “If you decide it’s important. If parents and teachers, police officers and pastors, hunters and sportsmen, Americans of every background stand up and say this time it’s got to be different — we’ve suffered too much pain to stand by and do nothing.”
Obama saluted the efforts of public safety officials in Minneapolis to reduce the carnage; the president said the city’s efforts have resulted in 40 percent fewer casualties among young people. He apparently was referring to a 2008 plan called “Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence.” That plan included four core principles: 1) Making sure all youth have access to trusted adults; 2) helping “at-risk” youths find employment through things like city job programs, 3) reintegrating violent offenders into the community; and 4) “seeking stronger penalties for people who sell and distribute illegal guns.”
Despite recent success at quelling the violence, new Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau, who introduced Obama yesterday, did not mince words: Minneapolis, she acknowledged, has had more than its share of horrors, including the shooting deaths of three small children, aged 2, 3 and 5, since December 2011.
“On a regular basis we see gun violence between rival gangs with several shootings happening just blocks from here,” she said. “And in the last 13 months we have seen horrific incidents right in this neighborhood that have shocked our community to the core.” The president, Harteau said, joined the police and the community in resolving not to accept that kind of continuing violence.
It perturbed at least a few community observers, however, that Obama was standing with uniformed police officers rather than with a combined presence of police and community representatives.
“I feel disappointed that we’re not actually going to the root of some of these problems,” activist Nick Mohammad said after Obama’s speech. “Until we begin to address issues of poverty and unemployment…these are root causes of some of the violence that happens, especially with the youth in these urban areas.”
When asked why Obama chose North Minneapolis as his destination in America’s heartland to push for gun control, Rev. Jerry McAfee of the nearby New Salem Missionary Baptist Church expressed bewilderment.
“To be honest I was confused,” said McAfee. “I’ve been working on violence in this area for quite some time, and if we’re the model for the country, the country’s gonna be in bad shape…The problem that’s hurting us is the proliferation of handguns in our community, and while law enforcement has been heavy-handed on the young man who has the gun, they’ve yet to do anything about how they get the gun.”
Gun violence is no stranger to the Camden neighborhood, where Obama visited. Jimmy Hodgeman, a 50-year-old painter, was shoveling snow on Dupont Ave. N. while waiting for the president to arrive, hoping to catch a glimpse of Obama. Hodgeman said he has seen shootings, break-ins and drug dealing, and often hears the sound of gunfire in the area. “There’s so much crap around here it’s getting ridiculous,” he said.
Hodgeman wasn’t exaggerating: The city’s “ShotSpotter” system recorded about a dozen incidents of gunfire during the last week of January within a mile of where Obama spoke Monday. The week before, there were two shooting victims in the same area.
Whether the President’s gun control initiatives succeed, at least one group of area residents is taking his proposals seriously: Two miles west of where Obama was speaking, at Bill’s Gun Shop and Range just across the North Minneapolis line in Robbinsdale, the store’s 22 firing range lanes were full, the store was crowded with gun shoppers, and business was brisk as the echoes of the muted range fire rang out.
“There’s been a kind of global panic — ‘What if this stuff goes through?’, ” store owner John Monson said, explaining the surge in gun sales since the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting and the unveiling of the president’s gun proposals. “Gun sales definitely are up — we’re being overwhelmed. We can’t bring in enough product to keep on the walls. And we have so many new people practicing on our gun range…it’s crazy.”
Monson agreed with Obama’s assertion that most Americans, including most gun owners, accept the need for background checks to be required before every gun sale. Such already is the case for gun shops like his — all sales require customers to pass a background check. Obama’s plan is intended to close the so-called gun show loophole, in which private gun sales often are conducted without background checks. But the background checks are only as good as the information about a person’s criminal and mental health history that goes into them, Monson said.
“The bad guys aren’t going to go through background checks,” Monson said. “It’s a touchy-feely concept that is not quite as comprehensive as they make it out to be. The kid who did the school shooting in Connecticut? He didn’t buy those guns. They were his mother’s. More background checks are not going to reduce the violence.”
Several models of one of the guns used in the Newtown massacre, a Bushmaster AR-15 semi-assault rifle, are available at Bill’s, priced from about $900 to as much as $1,400.
By the door to the gun shop, signs urged gun owners to attend gun control hearings being held by the Minnesota Legislature this week. Another sign, for sale for $5.95, said, “I’m just a bitter gun owner, clinging to my religion.” The sign mocks Obama’s 2008 primary election comment in Pennsylvania deriding some gun owners.
Still, back at the old Hamilton School, people hoping for an end to the ongoing bloodshed in the country were clinging to their hope that Obama will somehow help reduce the casualty count. One of them was a St. Paul mother named Leigh Block, whose 5-year-old daughter McKayla Nicole, was shot and killed by her ex-husband in 2004. He had borrowed the gun, a 9-millimeter pistol, from a friend, killed his daughter and then killed himself.
“I know not everyone will agree on everything,” Leigh Block said. “But like the president said, we have to do something — anything — to try to save someone.”
Story by Nick Coleman. Videography by Jacob Wheeler and Allison Herrera.