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For Some In Minneapolis, National Gun Debate Hits Close To Home

Photo caption:

Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Barack Obama greets law enforcement officers after speaking on ideas to reduce gun violence on Monday at the Minneapolis Police Department Special Operations.

Photo caption:

Photo by Jim Mone

Minneapolis high school student Sami Rahamim, 17, has embraced a public role speaking against gun violence in the months since his father and four others were slain last fall at the family sign business in Minneapolis.

The December shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., revived a national debate about gun violence. It's one that's emotional and often highly personal, and it's happening in places far from the halls of Congress. Earlier this week, President Obama was in Minneapolis advocating new limits on guns; no law or set of laws, he said, can keep children completely safe. NPR's David Welna was there for the visit and sent this reporter's notebook about the voices he encountered.

In the Minnesota where I grew up, angry arguments would sometimes come to bloody blows, but seldom to bullets.

Recently, that's changed.

"There are definitely problems with guns; a lot of stolen guns end up in the hands of kids in the community," said North Minneapolis resident Dale Hume, while standing outside the police building where the president spoke. Next to him, a big sign read: "Congress: protect our children, not the NRA."

I asked Hume whether gun violence was as bad as in the mid-90s, when this city was known as "MURDERapolis."

"It's better now, but it's still bad," he said. "[But] then when you know some of the people that get shot and killed, then it's different ... then it doesn't seem to be going away."

Hume is a local pastor and one of the kids in his youth group was shot and murdered, he said. He said the teenager was killed across the street from his church, St. Olaf Lutheran.

At the Obama event, Leigh Ann Block of St. Paul sat waiting to hear the president. She told me she got restraining orders eight years ago against her ex-husband that kept him from buying a gun. But he borrowed a 9 mm pistol from a friend and then took their daughter for an outing.

"He rented a car, drove to a rural road in Wisconsin, waited for my daughter to fall asleep, and then he shot her in the head and shot himself," she said, choking back tears. "She was only five."

Block had not spoken about this before in public, and said that up until now she couldn't even speak about guns or hear about guns. Every time somebody would mention a gun she would cry, she said.

"I still think about my daughter," she says, "and right now I am here for the cause of trying to promote safety. I can't save my daughter, but I want to speak on behalf of other people who are going through situations that [we] went through."

The next day at the state capitol, 17-year-old Sami Rahamim spoke at a hearing on gun control. He described how his father and five others were murdered last fall, at a Minneapolis sign company by a dismissed employee firing a Glock semi-automatic pistol. Later, I asked Sami whether he'd ever thought before about limiting guns.

"No, the gun issue wasn't something that had quite crossed my desk yet until it touched me in such a personal way that I absolutely had to get involved," Rahamim said.

At the same hearing, I talked with Republican state Rep. Tony Cornish, who proudly wore a lapel pin of an AK-47 and calls himself "an unapologetic member of the NRA."

"I have like 47 firearms at home; I'm proud of each one of them [and] I use them correctly," he said. "It's just a sporting rifle; I hunt with it, it's legal for deer, and so I figured why not wear it. Why be frightened to wear a gun just because it's used in crime? There's a lot of guns used in crimes."

Even in Minnesota.

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