North Dakota activist goes against grain of state’s gun culture
From left, Steve Faught of Amenia, N.D.; Kayla Sailer, 9, of Fargo, N.D.; and Eric Pueppke, of Amenia, take part in a shooting competition at the Red River Regional Marksmanship Center on Feb. 19 in West Fargo, N.D. Illustrates GUNS-NDAKOTA (category a), by Stephanie McCrummen (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Ben Garvin)
Gun-control advocate Susan Beehler of Mandan, N.D., meets with Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., on Feb. 19 at his office in Bismark, N.D. Illustrates GUNS-NDAKOTA (category a), by Stephanie McCrummen (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Ben Garvin)
One recent afternoon, Susan Beehler, who may be the only gun-control advocate in all of North Dakota, walked into VFW Post 762, a dimly lit, wood-paneled bar in downtown Fargo.
It was, perhaps, the gun-friendliest place in one of the gun-friendliest states in America; a state where gun rights are so sacred that violent felons can have them restored, where guns are so ordinary that a handwritten flier for high-capacity ammunition clips was recently posted on a grocery store bulletin board, next to one for a pinochle tournament.
Still, Beehler was optimistic. She headed for a table in the corner, where two men wearing flannel buffalo plaid were sipping drinks.
“Hello there!” she said. “I’m with the Million Moms for Gun Control group, and we’re looking for responsible gun owners!”
Dick Coleman, who owns 15 guns, and Pete Schlenker, who owns 33, nodded.
“We’re just moms interested in reasonable controls that people can live with,” she continued, trying to sound non-threatening. “Like limiting the number of bullets in magazines? Or universal background checks? That kind of thing –”
“Yep,” Schlenker said. Coleman just sipped his drink.
President Obama, speaking after the Connecticut school shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead, said he was sure that “the vast majority of responsible, law-abiding gun owners” would support gun-control measures such as universal background checks or a ban on assault rifles. He said passing the new laws would require “a wave of Americans . . . standing up and saying ‘enough’ on behalf of our kids.”
The White House strategy is all the more critical in states such as North Dakota, where Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat with an A rating from the National Rifle Association, was elected in November. Winning over Heitkamp and other Democrats from gun-friendly states such as New Mexico, Indiana and West Virginia is the least of what the White House must accomplish to pass changes to gun laws, to say nothing of securing the necessary Republican votes.
At the moment, though, there is virtually no ground game toward that end in North Dakota. Democrats are laying low on the issue.
And so for now, the cause of gun control in North Dakota is in the hands of Susan Beehler, 54, mother of five and occasional civic gadfly whose past causes have included dairy farmers, baby seals, arthritis and abolishing property taxes, none of which affected her like the Sandy Hook shooting.
She had sat for hours watching the news from Newtown unfold and vowed to do something. A few weeks later, she started a North Dakota chapter of a group called One Million Moms for Gun Control and started studying up on assault rifles and statistics on gun deaths. She more or less agreed with what Obama had said about gun owners. As a North Dakotan who grew up around guns and once sold them at Woolco in the 1980s, she felt qualified to take on the cause. She would canvass for support.
“I’m the lone ranger!” she said as she went public with her Million Moms Facebook page.
A few hours later came the first two responses: One was a photo of a man shooting a rifle and a suggestion that she learn how to use one. The other read, “Shame on you.”
Beehler, who does not own a gun, joked that her life insurance policy was up to date. “Hopefully I can find a few other brave souls,” she said.
A couple of days later, Beehler noted 19 “likes” on her Facebook page. Roughly half were from out of state.
Now she was pulling into the parking lot of Scheel’s, a sporting goods chain that gained national attention recently for helping the West Fargo Hockey Asssociation with a 200-gun raffle of Remingtons and Glocks.
Beehler figured it was a good place to canvass gun owners. She zeroed in on a man in camouflage across the parking lot, applied lipstick and climbed out of the car.
“Hi there!” yelled Beehler, a solitary figure with blazing red hair shuffling across the snow. “I’m starting a group called a Million Moms for Gun Control, and I was wondering about your feelings on reforming gun laws?”
“As long as you don’t want to take my guns away,” the man said, taking a flier and hurrying along.
A man with a mustache and cowboy hat was heading in her direction.
“Excuse me,” Beehler said, introducing herself. “What we’d like the discussion to be about is responsible gun ownership, not ‘guns or no guns.’ So I was wondering, do you think I’m a crazy lady?”
“No,” said the man, smiling.
“What’s your idea of gun control?” she asked.
“I think there should be better background checks,” he said.
Although roughly half of all North Dakotans own guns, what people here as a whole think about the gun-control proposals in play is something of a mystery.
There are no recent state polls on the issue. In January, state legislators introduced bills to allow people with permits to carry concealed guns in schools and churches, and another that would punish police officers who enforce any future federal gun law changes.
Only one person testified against the latter idea: Beehler.
The state Democratic Party has not taken a position on the bills, and spokeswoman Rania Batrice said they are not likely to champion the issue of gun control.
North Dakota Republican Party chairman Sam Stein said that assuming North Dakotans oppose changes to gun laws would be “a little bit simplistic.” But if politicians want to be re-elected, he said,
“they definitely know what side to be on.”