In gun-loving North Dakota, one activist pushes for gun control

February 21, 2013

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 the nation, a state where gun rights are so sacred that violent felons can have them restored, where firearms 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.

How the NRA exerts influence over Congress

“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. Beehl­er, a little nervous, kept on with her pitch, unsure where it was going.

President Obama, speaking after the Connecticut school shootings that left 20 children and six adults dead, said he is 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 appealed to the grass roots: 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 change 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 lying low on the issue. Obama’s vaunted campaign machine, now called Organizing for Action, has not organized any action.

One Washington-based group, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, did try running full-page ads blasting Heitkamp — “Shame on you,” they read — after she described the president’s proposals as “way in the extreme of what I think is necessary or should even be talked about.” But that did not seem to have much effect.

And so for now, the cause of gun control in North Dakota is in the hands of Susan Beehler­, 54, a 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 shootings.

She had sat for hours watching the news from Newtown unfold in her living room 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. She would venture into bars and have reasoned conversations.

“I’m the lone ranger!” she said as she went public with her Million Moms Facebook page. (The organization has since changed its name to Moms Demand Action.)

A few hours later, came the first two responses: One was a photo of a man shooting a rifle along with 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.

Starting a conversation

A couple of days later, Beehl­er noted 19 “likes” on her Facebook page. Roughly half were from out of state. Someone from New Orleans had sent her a rap video about gun control that stuck in her head. An old colleague expressed support, though she was unwilling to “go public,” as she put it. Beehl­er had met two other women in Fargo who were willing to help.

Now she was pulling into the snow-packed parking lot of Scheel’s, a sporting goods chain that gained national attention recently for helping the West Fargo Hockey Association with a 200-gun raffle of Remingtons and Glocks.

Beehler figured it was a good place to canvass gun owners, and she had prepared a stack of fliers with her group’s Facebook address and logos of little hearts.

It was 1 degree outside, which made her artificial hips ache. 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.

Beehler trotted over to a man in a shearling jacket — “I’m busy,” he said — and then stopped a woman with two boys wearing camouflage jackets.

“No, thank you,” she said after Beehl­er made her pitch.

A man with a thick 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, deciding that she should be solicitous rather than argumentative.

“I think there should be better background checks,” he said.

“I see. And what about assault weapons, do you think people need those?”

“No one needs those,” he said and took one of the fliers in a gloved hand.

It was snowing, and Beehler was emboldened. She decided to try an indoor venue, and headed over to the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall.

Stances in the state

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. A recent gun rights rally outside the state Capitol in Bismarck drew about 100 people on a 5-degree day. Newspapers have published letters on both sides of 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 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 a spokeswoman said they are not likely to champion the issue of gun control.

“From a party perspective, there is so much happening right now as far as funding milk for elementary-age kids, tax breaks for oil companies,” said Rania Batrice, a spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party. “To be completely honest, we’re very focused on that.” Heitkamp declined a request for an interview.

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 reelected, he said, “they definitely know what side to be on.”

At the same time, he and others said that North Dakotans prize their political independence.

“I don’t think North Dakotans wake up in the morning and worry what the NRA thinks,” said Jim Fuglie, a former director of the state Democratic Party and ex-NRA member. “We are a moderate people in North Dakota.”

Talking about guns

Beehler drove through the snow over to the VFW post, a beery place with poker machines and a banner for a chili cook-off over the bar. After getting nowhere with a group of card-carrying NRA members, she walked over to the table where Dick Coleman, Pete Schlenk­er and Schlenk­er’s wife were drinking.

She started talking about reasonable gun control and limiting bullets in magazines and universal background checks. Then she pulled out her fliers with the little hearts and put them on their table, over the Budweiser logo.

“The other thing is on assault weapons — we do support banning them,” Beehl­er said, almost apologetically, explaining that she had gone online and watched a video of a man shooting one. “I mean, they are not used for hunting.”

“No,” said Schlenker, a Korean War veteran whose collection of 33 guns includes two recently purchased assault rifles.

“I was like, ‘Holy cow!’ ” said Beehl­er, sensing an opening. “We’re not talking about the guns of our heritage.”

“Yep,” Schlenk­er said.

Beehler moved on to the subject of 30-round ammunition clips. Coleman made the point that ­rapid-firing guns are useful for hunting quick-moving coyotes, a real nuisance during calving season. He said his son had 30-round clips.

“He likes to go to the shooting range,” said Coleman, a Vietnam veteran. “He’s an avid hunter. I have no problem with the 30-round clip, but I agree they should do more extensive background checks. It’s not the gun that kills, it’s the nut behind the gun.”

Beehler started to feel more comfortable. She pulled up a chair, sat down and ordered a cocktail.

“To get back to assault rifles,” said Schlenk­er, and the four went on talking about whether an assault-weapons ban would make some of their own arsenal illegal, about mental health, about whether, say, a 9mm Smith & Wesson with a 15-round staggered-
column magazine would become illegal if high-capacity clips were banned.

They talked about the gun culture of North Dakota and the ritual of hunting with their sons on snowy mornings.

It was the sort of conversation that Beehl­er had hoped to have. After a while, she put the fliers back in her sequined purse and thanked Coleman, Schlenker and his wife.

When she got home, Beehl­er checked her Facebook page.

She had 22 “likes,” a few messages ridiculing her efforts and a couple of promising messages from some students in the town of Bottineau. She wondered what Heitkamp was hearing from voters.

“It probably won’t make a difference,” she said of her efforts. “But at least she might see there are some people out here with a different view.”

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