by Margaret kinney
According to the Minnesota Violent Death Rating System, on average, firearms are used in 45% of suicide deaths, 65% of homicide deaths, and 54% of interpersonal violence deaths. In an average year, 442 people die and 680 people are wounded by guns in Minnesota. It also seems daily that someone in St. Paul is killed or injured by someone using a firearm.
In response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, one of the many mass shooting events in our recent history, Shannon Watts, a New York State mother of five, started Moms Demand Action in 2012. Watts began a Facebook dialogue to encourage and empower Americans to be able to reduce gun violence. People began to start chapters in their states, and Moms Demand Action has grown to a national nonprofit, bipartisan organization which hopes to curtail the current levels of gun violence. In Minnesota, the St. Paul chapter is one of 14 Minnesota groups around the state.
I was eager to learn more about Moms Demand Action (MDA), so I sat down with two of its St. Paul chapter members: Gretchen Damon, a retired teacher and currently a gardener at St. Catherine University, and Emily Benzie, a St. Paul family physician.
Damon said she joined MDA in 2016, wanting to be active somehow in helping to reduce gun violence, seeing it as intertwined with so many other aspects of our society. Benzie said she joined for basically the same reasons in 2018, after the Parkland, Florida high school shooting.
Curtailing gun violence in this country, and in this city, strikes me as an overwhelmingly challenging task, so my first question for these two Saint Paul women was about what MDA has been able to accomplish in Minnesota so far.
“Over the years,” said Damon, “MDA, has been able to build relationships with many community activists and policy makers.”
“More and more stakeholders are coming together and pulling for results,“ said Benzie. “Faith communities, physicians, teachers, business owners, firearms owners, veterans, women’s health advocates and high school students.”
The two women have noticed that they have seen a shift in potential for change in Minnesota government, saying our current state representatives are more willing each year to talk about gun safety and violence prevention. MDA volunteer members have influenced the political climate by door knocking before elections, instituting a writing campaign to elected officials and supporting prevention-minded candidates. Some MDA members have gone on to become elected members of state Congress.
The duo said one way they’ve been successful is by participating in the state legislature’s annual advocacy day. MDA members show up to the many hearings and give testimony, bringing along survivors of gun violence to share their stories, including research and statistics about gun-involved deaths.
At an even more local level, MDA members attend St. Paul City Council meetings, where they have found an ally for their cause in Councilmember Rebecca Noecker, who represents Saint Paul’s Ward 2. (Benzie and Damon agree, “She gets things done.”) Through Noecker, MDA members have found a bridge to Mayor Melvin Carter, who has been especially supportive around the issue of securely stored firearms, wanting to make citizens aware that most stolen guns are taken from vehicles.
“In fact,” said Benzie, “as we expand our collaboration with other concerned citizens, many of these groups we work with were represented at a recent meeting with the St. Paul City Council.”
MDA members can also be found at a booth or table at public events, such as Safe Summer Nights, where they talk informally to visitors, or they share educational materials on gun storage safety.
Benzie and Damon said MDA is always looking to further diversify its membership, as they are really “mothers and others.” MDA also gives out gunlocks, devices that temporarily disable firearms. Whenever possible, MDA members share statistics with members of the public, such as the fact that if a firearm is available during a domestic dispute, a woman’s chance of being shot goes up five times.
When I asked about the most pressing challenges, I was told a big one is opposition from people who believe in no regulation of firearms. MDA is not against the Second Amendment or gun ownership, but they are pro a culture of responsible gun ownership.
I asked what gives members of MDA continued hope. Damon answered, “I am still really motivated to do this work. It’s hard work. A staggering amount of firearms have been purchased in the past three years. We run into obstacles but it’s really hard to give up because when I hear stories from survivors, I think it’s not fair that so many families are living with gun violence trauma. It seems so solvable if we could be sensible.”
Benzie added, “I am optimistic, because there are so many stakeholders pulling in the same direction to make our city and state safer, which really is different from when we first joined the group. We’ve seen promise to make substantial changes. My hope for the future is to be able to get back to a place when children don’t have to think about getting killed in school or public spaces.”
For more MDA information visit momsdemandaction.org.
Some of the organizations aligned with Moms Demand Action include:
• studentsdemandaction.org — young activists, having grown up in the midst of America’s gun violence crisis, are committed to ending gun violence in our communities.
• everytown.org — a movement of nearly 10,000,000 everyday Americans working to end gun violence.
• theviolenceproject.org — a St. Paul nonprofit empowering citizens to take action to stop mass shootings.
Margaret Kinney is a West End visual artist and board member for the Community Reporter. The Community Reporter acts as the fiscal agent for St. Paul Moms Demand Action.
Minnesota firearm safety laws in the works At the Capitol
On May 19, Governor Walz signed into law a historic $880 million spending measure to include two new laws regarding firearms. The first would expand background checks on private gun sales, and the second proposal would create red flag laws, where family members or law enforcement officials could ask a court to take guns away from someone who poses a risk to themselves or others.
At City Hall
The St. Paul City Council is planning to vote after this article went to press on an update to the city’s firearm discharge ordinance, requiring all firearms to be safely stored and secured with a locking device, with all ammunition stored separately from the firearm.