GUN REFORM: IT ISN’T ENOUGH
By Rachael Joseph
This week, on the opening day of the Minnesota legislative session, hundreds of people gathered in the rotunda to demand the passage of two bills: universal background checks and gun violence protective orders (GVPOs). Universal background checks would expand Minnesota’s current background checks law from only Federally Licensed Firearm dealers (FFLs) to also require background checks on all private sales, with a few exceptions (antique firearms and family member transfer, for example). GVPOs would make it possible for families to be heard by a judge in a civil hearing if they believe that their loved one is in danger of hurting themselves or others. The judge could then have that individuals’ firearms removed temporarily, until they are no longer a danger to themselves or others. The majority of Minnesotans and even gun owners support these laws and either law might have saved my aunt, Shelley Joseph Kordell’s life. But, in my opinion, they don’t go far enough.
Early on Monday morning, September 29th, 2003, my aunt Shelley was murdered in the courthouse shooting at the Hennepin County Government Center. Her friend and attorney, Rick Hendrickson, survived a bullet to the neck at point blank range. This happened quickly, and neither an armed deputy nor security guard were able to stop the shootings. Rick later told me that a bullet travels faster than the speed of sound so, by the time he heard the shot, he was already on the ground bleeding out. My aunt Shelley died at Hennepin County Medical Center a short time later.
The shooter had a long history of harassment and threatening behavior. Shelley had been the most recent target of nasty letters, threatening voicemails, repeated frivolous legal actions, and she’d even left dead animals on Shelley’s doorstep. Each time Shelley called the police, she was told that they couldn’t do anything unless she actually hurt somebody. And that’s exactly what she did…the shooter went to a Minnesota Gun Show in the late summer of 2003 and purchased a gun for $60 through a private sale, with no paperwork or background check required by Minnesota law. She took her new .38 to the shooting range for practice and then lured my aunt Shelley to her death. Had Minnesota enforced background checks on private sales, perhaps the shooter’s history would’ve disqualified her from gun ownership. If Minnesota had had “red flag laws” or GVPOs, Shelley could’ve petitioned a court to have the shooter’s ability to purchase firearms temporarily restricted. But, since Minnesota had neither of those laws, the Ramsey County courts instead protected only themselves by having the shooter declared a frivolous litigator and barring her from any more filings, so she went to neighboring Hennepin County.
I want to be very clear that I am in favor of both expanded background checks and gun violence protective orders. I believe that if either of these laws is able to save even one person from the violent death Shelley experienced, it will be worth it. And states that have passed comprehensive background checks legislation have seen a near 50% decrease in many types of gun deaths, from intimate partner violence to gun suicide to cops shot on the job.
However, background checks and gun violence protective orders will not be enough. We live in a gun-loving country. There are over 300 million guns in the United States, that’s more than one gun for every man, woman, and child. Extremists often stoke fear about registration and confiscation but, think about it…what would that actually look like? Guns manufactured prior to the late 60s weren’t required to have serial numbers and many have the same serial number as other guns. Federal law prohibits the registration of firearms so, there’s no way to know if your neighbor has 3 guns or 300.
I’ve been a gun control activist for over a decade and after considering the data, while watching shooting after shooting, I’ve transitioned into the role of victim/survivor advocate. While others fight for, and hopefully succeed in passing stricter gun laws, the shootings will continue. And survivors need the unique support that only other gun violence survivors can provide when navigating the bureaucracy and aftermath. The Department of Justice has multiple programs for victims and survivors but, who’s going to fill out all that paperwork when their child has just been gunned down? Other survivors will. Who is going to help a devastated family choose their loved one’s coffin? Keep the pressure on law enforcement in unsolved cases, contact elected officials, hold their hand during the criminal trial, and deal with the media? Survivors Lead will.
This enormous void in services for gun violence survivor services is why I founded Survivors Lead, the only gun reform organization led 100% by survivors, for survivors. And the need is urgent. We hope to have multiple Survivor Advocates in communities across the country but, we have been a nation focused on gun control. Which is absolutely necessary but, who will fill out the Medicaid paperwork for someone who’s been shot in the head and now needs around-the-clock care? We must start looking at gun reform policy as including survivor services, as well as preventing more individuals from becoming survivors in the first place.
So, this session while the Minnesota legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives consider passing important prevention laws like background checks and GVPOs, we need them to center and uplift survivor voices — to consider that survivors are the most capable and qualified leaders on this issue because we’ve lived it. Survivors Lead is proposing a Survivor Assistance bill which would implement a tax on handgun and lead ammunition. Those monies would be available to non-profit organizations providing direct services to gun violence survivors, with the added benefit of incentivizing the purchase of non-lead ammunition, reducing environmental lead.
“Nihil de nobis, sine nobis. Nothing about us, without us.”
Rachael Joseph is a survivor of gun violence and childhood sexual abuse. She is the executive director of Survivors Lead, a 2019 New Leaders Council Fellow, and serves on the Board of Directors at the Minnesota Alliance on Crime and Art Is My Weapon Minnesota. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two children.