Latest school shooting stirs little debate

The day after the Red Lake reservation shootings _ the latest of three mass killings in Minnesota and Wisconsin in recent months _ a group of House Democrats fired off a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., demanding a fresh look at new gun legislation.

More than a week later, they’ve received no reply, and nobody believes there will be a bill-signing ceremony for gun legislation anytime soon.

With Congress back from spring break this week, gun control is not on the agenda. Most Republicans are loath to do anything that could restrict gun rights, and Democrat leaders – still smarting from recent election reverses – aren’t eager to be the anti-gun party either.

Unlike the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo., which prompted a spate of gun-control proposals from President Clinton, the Red Lake High shootings have caused little more than a muted debate over gun control – although activists on both sides have tried to shape it to their ends.

Political observers cite several reasons for this, chief among them the unique circumstances of the Red Lake tragedy, in which Jeff Weise, 16, was able to arm himself illegally with pistols and rifles that he took from his slain grandfather, a veteran tribal police officer.

As gun-rights backers have been quick to note, the Red Lake scenario seemed to be beyond the reach of any of the most recent gun-control proposals: child safety locks, background checks for gun show sales, or a ban on assault weapons.

“Everything that kid did that day, practically from the moment he walked out of his bedroom, was a felony,” said Joe Olson, a Hamline University law professor and president of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance. “I don’t think any gun-control laws would have made a difference.”

Gun-control advocates aren’t ready to concede the point, arguing that next-generation safety locks and futuristic gun technologies that identify users by their hand grip could have made a difference, were the gun industry to embrace them.

“The gun lobby has successfully fought advances in this technology,” said Peter Hamm, of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “If they hadn’t, we’d have the technology by now.”

The Brady Campaign also took issue with incoming National Rifle Association President Sandra Froman, who said the tragedy should prompt a discussion of new ways to protect children, including arming teachers.

Cultural differences also have been cited to explain why Red Lake is unlikely to become a rallying cry for a new gun-control debate.

Unlike Littleton, a white, middle-class suburb of Denver, the Red Lake Indian Reservation is a desperately poor community that has found little resonance in the culture of politics and television outside of Minnesota.

“The fact of the matter is it’s Native Americans, and they’re not a powerful political constituency,” said David Schultz, who teaches American politics at Hamline.

Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat who represents the Red Lake area in Congress, said that attempts to use the Red Lake shootings as fodder in the gun-control agenda probably would backfire on the reservation.

“They’ve got enough problems without being dragged into a peripheral issue for political reasons,” said Peterson, a member of the House Sportsman’s Caucus. “I don’t hear anybody bringing up guns. It’s just not on anyone’s radar.”

A variety of polls suggest that a majority of Americans favor stricter gun-control laws, particularly for the sale of handguns.

Even before the Red Lake shootings, in which 10 died, including Weise, the issue had come into focus in the Upper Midwest. Earlier in the month, a gunman killed seven people in a Milwaukee congregation. And on Nov. 21, exactly four months before the Red Lake tragedy, a Hmong hunter from St. Paul, Minn., allegedly shot and killed six Wisconsin hunters who were trying to chase him off their land.