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Ryan Johnson, Published February 22 2013

Cramer forum on guns, violence raises questions, but no easy answers

FARGO – Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said there was one clear message from his first “American Issues Forum” tackling the issues of guns, violence and culture.

“I learned that we are a diverse people,” he said after an open meeting that spanned more than two hours. It featured discussions by eight panelists and about a dozen community members, many starkly divided on how – or if – the government should address gun violence following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary last December.

Reasons for the violence also prompted debate. Speakers suggested the breakdown of marriage, violence in the media, lack of resources to address mental illness and lax restrictions on purchasing guns and ammunition all play a role in an issue that Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes said has been around for decades.

“What’s incredibly frustrating, and I would dare say it’s incredibly frustrating for just about everybody, is that after three and four decades, we’re no further along than we were when this discussion started,” Ternes said. “I think that’s been a real failure on a number of levels.”

Still, he said a major “impediment” to any success on the topic has been an inability to have discussion. Instead, he said, the nation has split into “polar opposite views” that leave little room for a middle ground.

Panelists and speakers had obvious differences in opinion on the issues that flared up in the wake of Sandy Hook.

Matthew St. John, senior pastor at Fargo’s Bethel Church, described how he rushed to the hospital years ago to comfort the newly widowed husband of a parishioner. – only to see the man arrested for shooting and killing his wife because of an affair he was having.

St. John said it would be “intellectually dishonest to reduce the conversation” to firearms.

“The realities are the gun in itself doesn’t create the problem anymore than the spoon itself creates obesity,” he said.

Susan Beehler, founder of the North Dakota chapter of Moms Demand Action, said those people with “a bad heart” – referencing earlier comments by St. John – are more apt to kill themselves or others if they have access to guns.

“So what the question should be is not the gun itself, but how do we keep the access to that gun out of the hands of somebody that might use it do harm?” she said.

Other panelists discussed North Dakota’s strong ties to hunting and sport shooting, the link between more kids being raised in single-parent or unmarried households, and gun violence and the need for more early identification and treatment of mental illness.

Community member Mara Solberg said gun control isn’t much different than efforts to improve driving safety, including laws requiring the use of seat belts that she said have saved countless lives.

Steve Owens said “there is nothing common sense” about gun control proposals now on the table, and said leaders should adequately enforce existing laws that already protect the public from guns getting into the wrong hands. He said the same is true with trying to ban certain types of weapons.

“We’ve done this; we’ve tried this,” he said, adding restrictions make it hard for citizens to get the weapons that remain easily available to criminals.

Paul Conlin said Americans are bracing for the “storm” coming from Washington – including President Barack Obama’s 23 executive orders last month dealing with gun control. He said until changes are passed by Congress or are approved as a constitutional amendment, these orders go against the Second Amendment.

“I’m not going to abide by an executive order,” he said. “An executive order is no more a law, no more makes itself a law than me standing in my garage makes me a ’57 Chevy.”

Cramer said two main proposals now being discussed – banning certain types of weapons, such as military-style rifles, and prohibiting high-capacity ammo magazines seem to be an “uphill climb.”

A push for universal background checks during the purchase of weapons seems to have “some common ground,” although it does face opposition.

He said the larger issues may not be something to be addressed by politicians and the president, but instead through the church, the family and other parts of society.

“By and large, I think what I heard today was that the solutions are less legislative and probably more cultural,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587