Just hours before Margaret Flath’s husband shot and killed her in a domestic dispute two years ago, he had bonded out of jail in Wadena, Minn., on a pending domestic assault charge that barred him from possessing firearms.
Flath’s death was similar to the murder of Julie Hildreth, who was shot outside her local American Legion on the Iron Range in 2015 when her ex-boyfriend turned a hunting rifle on her. He was awaiting sentencing for assaulting her but had not been ordered to turn over his guns, despite a 2014 law that required it.
The two domestic killings underscore a key GOP argument in the intensifying debate over new gun control laws: that Minnesota’s existing firearms laws are not sufficiently enforced.
Facing pressure to hold hearings this fall on Democratic proposals to expand background checks and take guns away from people adjudicated to be dangerous, Republicans in the state Senate are rallying behind calls to toughen penalties for existing laws instead.
Topping their list of targets are seldom-prosecuted laws designed to prevent “straw buyers” from purchasing weapons for others who are ineligible to own guns, as well as laws mandating court hearings to ensure that domestic abusers hand over their guns when ordered by a judge.
“I mean, there’s a whole discussion about passing new gun laws and we can’t even enforce the ones we’ve got on the books — with someone that we know is violent?” said state Sen. Eric Pratt, a Prior Lake Republican who is sponsoring legislation that would require compliance hearings in domestic abuse cases.
While many gun control and domestic abuse activists say they want better enforcement of existing laws, some see the Republican proposals as an effort to deflect attention from legal “loopholes” such as exempting private guns sales from background checks. Some of those measures, such as expanding background checks, still provoke deep partisan divisions in the Legislature despite broad support in national polls.
Improving laws designed to keep guns out of the wrong hands is “all fine and good,” said state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, referring to the GOP bills. “But [they] would absolutely mean nothing if the same people who are prohibited can go out and buy another handgun from their neighbor without going through a background screening.”
Minnesota court data suggest widespread gaps in enforcing requirements that domestic abusers turn over their guns within three days of a judge’s protection order. Since 2015, only 8% of the 11,734 cases in which a judge issued an order for protection included a follow-up court filing detailing the transfer of firearms to law enforcement, a licensed dealer or a third party.
“If that’s not being followed up on I don’t see how new red flag laws are going to be any more beneficial if we’re not enforcing the kind of ‘red flag light’ bills that we have now,” said Rob Doar, political director for the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus.
Meanwhile, straw-buyer cases where guns are transferred to ineligible people are rarely being prosecuted at the state level — with just two on record since 2014. Prosecutors cite the low penalties for such cases, which are currently gross misdemeanors. A bill sponsored by state Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, would make that a felony.
“This ... would make it more worthwhile for investigative efforts because I do believe it is a very serious crime to knowingly transfer a firearm to an ineligible person,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. But Choi remains adamant that any new package of gun laws include universal background checks and red flag provisions.
No Minnesota Republican in the Senate has publicly broken ranks with the GOP caucus’ opposition to new gun control laws. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, has expressed willingness for hearings, but has suggested the focus be on existing laws, not new ones.
The legislative impasse on gun control in Minnesota reflects the same gridlock in Congress, despite a spate of mass shootings this summer in Ohio and Texas. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week that any new gun legislation is stuck “in a holding pattern” as Congress awaits a signal from President Donald Trump on what measures the White House might support.
Federal officials previously scrutinized existing gun laws after the shooting deaths last year of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla. The Justice Department ordered federal prosecutors around the country to work with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to more aggressively review cases where people legally barred from possessing guns repeatedly attempted to buy them. Such cases are rarely investigated or prosecuted. A September 2018 Government Accountability Office report found just 12 cases nationwide for the previous year — a tiny fraction of the thousands of reported attempts to make illegal gun buys. Law enforcement leaders explain that such cases carry far lesser penalties than most other federal gun charges.
Tasha Zerna, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota, said the office evaluated its approach to such prosecutions and decided to place “an emphasis on cases with aggravating circumstances,” such as those involving suspects with histories of violent crime. In fiscal 2019, Zerna said, the office is projected to increase all gun cases filed by about 30%.
The push for tougher penalties comes as Minnesota county attorneys continue to charge more cases involving firearms each year. State prosecutors reported a record 1,243 cases last year where defendants allegedly possessed or used firearms, the highest since the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission began collecting such data in 1996. But gun rights activists like Doar point out that 61% of gun offenders were sentenced to the mandatory minimum term.
Those calling for stronger gun restrictions are meanwhile highlighting research into online gun marketplaces like Armslist.com. A report produced in part by two University of Minnesota students last week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found evidence of background checks in just 9% of the site’s nearly 5 million gun listings. Under Minnesota law, background checks are not required for private gun transfers.
“The metaphor sort of being used right now is that you’re at the airport, there’s two lines and one is security and one is not,” said Molly Leutz, a leader for Moms Demand Action Minnesota. “That in a way is where we are with gun sales in Minnesota.”
The first domestic homicide recorded in Minnesota this year illustrates the challenge of keeping guns away from would-be shooters: Months after an incident prompted relatives to remove guns from the Blaine home of Matthew and Mary Jo Jansen, Matthew allegedly bought a new Smith & Wesson .44 from a nearby Fleet Farm. He then allegedly used it to kill his wife on the day she decided to leave him.
Guns are used in about half of the state’s domestic homicides tracked each year by the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. Liz Richards, the group’s executive director, wants to see restrictions lifted on funding for public health research on gun violence.
“It’s really hard to say what the policy fix is that is going to get at the core issue when we don’t have the data,” Richards said.