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Lloyd Omdahl, Published July 14 2013

Omdahl: 79 percent not enough for North Dakota

We had a garage sale at our house a couple of weeks ago, and I took the occasion to sell my .22 rifle, a gun I purchased to protect my lettuce from the rabbits and my bird feeder from the squirrels. (Life requires us to make hard choices.)

The sale wasn’t a protest over gun legislation. The rabbits and squirrels just disappeared from our country place and the gun wasn’t needed anymore.

Before selling, I called the local police department to check for regulations about selling guns at garage sales. When presented the question, the officer said there were none.

The gun was purchased by an honorable-looking citizen, but I could have ended up unknowingly selling it to a convicted felon. I considered doing my own oral background check on the spot, but the purchaser looked OK, so I let it go. I think felons want more than a .22 anyway.

This all occurred before Gabby Giffords and husband Mark Kelly made appearances in Fargo and Bismarck in their campaign to get Congress to require background checks on all gun transfers. They came to apply subtle pressure on Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., both of whom voted to kill the proposal in the U.S. Senate.

While here, Giffords and Kelly reported that polls showed that 79 percent of North Dakotans favored universal background checks.

This raises an interesting question about representative government. It is obvious that neither Hoeven nor Heitkamp were listening to their constituents on the issue.

Hoeven was trapped by the pack mentality that dominates the Republican caucus in the Senate. Hoeven is not really an ideologue. He’s a rational pragmatic moderate. If he were not imprisoned by the politics of his caucus, he would have voted for the measure.

Heitkamp was trapped by the logic and support of the National Rifle Association. She explained that she was respecting North Dakota’s gun tradition. However, that argument loses credibility when a majority of those who own guns favor the background check.

As for both senators on this issue, what they are giving us as reasons are really excuses.

It is unlikely that the Giffords-Kelly visit will change the minds of enough additional North Dakotans to influence our senators. Neither will it change the ideology of the U.S. Senate or reduce the influence of the NRA.

Getting universal background checks on guns in America is challenging because reason has little impact in the debate. The most vociferous gun owners are driven by psychological reasons, and opinions based on psychological factors cannot be changed by reason, so logic is of no avail.

All of this being said, gun ownership may already be too widespread for new legislation to be very worthwhile. Registration of all existing guns would be necessary to make the program effective. But convicted felons, people with mental challenges, and gun radicals aren’t going to come forward for background checks.

Because so many guns are already out there, background checks may be closing the barn door after the horse is gone. Even so, gun ownership by dangerous felons has been prevented by the background checks already required of dealers.

In the final analysis, universal background checks will not solve the problem, but it would catch a few folks who shouldn’t have guns.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com