Hennepin County’s sheriff is in the middle of the U.S. gun debate


by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor

Place a dot in the middle of the country, a marker for some of the most engaged discussion about reducing gun violence, and you will find Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek leading much of that discussion.

Stanek is not a newcomer to tackling difficult issues. He meets challenges head on daily in his role as the sheriff of one of the largest metropolitan, urban sheriff’s departments in the country. He owns 30 years of law enforcement experience and also served as a public policy maker in the Minnesota Legislature for five terms.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek

It is no coincidence that President Obama chose Minneapolis as the first stop this past Monday on his nationwide tour to promote his program to reduce gun violence in America. Obama saw in Minnesota, law enforcement officers who have made major inroads in shoring up ways to make access more difficult for those people who should not have access to guns.

Serving on and as president of a major county sheriff’s association led to Stanek being invited last December to meet in Washington D.C. with Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder and a working group on gun violence. From there, he was invited back to the White House to continue  educating the president, the attorney general and his staff. Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau also attended this meeting.

From there, President Obama apparently recognized that Minneapolis and Hennepin County have a track record for reducing violence. Citing four reasons for Obama choosing Minneapolis as his first anti-gun violence stop, Stanek said, “First, we’ve reduced violence significantly, 37 percent over the last five years including robbery, murder and aggravated assault. Number 2, we leverage technology, forensic sciences to handle violent offenders, and we have a good strong partnership with local law enforcement as well as federal law enforcement here. Third, the current Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) nominee B. Todd Jones, comes from Minnesota. Fourth, Obama has a working relationship with sheriffs, and he likes that. He needs law enforcement in order to do some of the things he wants to do.”

Stanek is an idea man and a leader who more often than not accomplishes tasks he may have designed. Stanek is not foreign to creating partnerships right here in Minnesota with other agencies and now has expanded his reach to working with the Obama Administration to find ways to battle gun violence. He has a knack for using his leadership skills to affect major change.

Look for Stanek to continue being a sounding board for the President. In a recent interview, he said, “I will tell you what I told him, two key things: 1) He’s got to make it clear as I have, what I believe in is that gun ownership is a right and not a privilege under the Constitution. You’ve got to make this clear to the American people. 2) Gun control alone cannot solve the problem of extreme gun violence, not only do we have an access problem but those who are prohibited by law from owning and possessing guns should never have access.”

Stanek is the first to say that he and the President don’t agree on everything. “We must try to find some common ground on issues and do a better job for Hennepin County residents as well as the people of this country,” Stanek said.

Stanek is very specific in pointing to gun access as an area that must be improved, background checks in particular.

The gun access problem must be addressed to keep felons and those who suffer from mental illness from obtaining guns, Stanek said. Background checks of gun purchasers are very important, Stanek said.

He outlines problems in terms of the federal data base, NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) background checks. When you come in and want to purchase a firearm or to request a permit to carry a firearm, you have to undergo what is called an NICS background check.

This federal data base is managed by the Department of Justice through the  FBI with states contributing information to populate that data base. Gaping holes exist in that data base, Stanek said. This is something that all law enforcement agree with, the chiefs, sheriffs, and all line officers throughout the state through the Minnesota Police & Peace Officers Association.

Stanek explains the gaping holes as these: “First, only 12 states in the country submit mental health records on a regular basis to the data base. Secondly, one-fourth of all conviction data are in data base. So, when you come to me and say, ‘Sheriff, I would like to purchase a gun or would like to get a permit to carry,’ first thing we will do is run a NICS background check on you. It’s pretty good odds that I am not going to find out about you if only 12 states in the union contribute to the mental health piece. If you come back clear on that next data base check, I have no choice to issue a permit to purchase or the permit to carry a concealed weapon. See the gaping holes I’m talking about? President Obama has seen them as well, and through his executive orders, he is trying to improve his part of it by using the executive order process.”

The Minnesota Legislature revised its laws on background checks in 2010 and now is considered one of the 12 states submitting mental health records to the federal data base.

Stanek pointed to the Christian Oberender story in Carver County in 1995. Oberender, then 14 years old, shot and killed his mother in cold blood with shotgun.  He ended up at state mental hospital, which is probably where he belonged at the time, Stanek said. He served eight years, was released at age 21 because the state could no longer hold him. Now he’s 33 years old and has legally purchased multiple firearms, many handguns, long guns, semi-automatic weapons and his name does not appear in federal mental health data base. Why? Minnesota  never submitted his conviction nor his mental health records as committed by the courts. “I don’t think those are the kind of guys you want running around out there,” Stanek said.

Big reform to end gun violence is needed, Stanek said. He says some people want to talk about universal background checks, meaning 100 percent of guns bought or sold, whether through the Internet, gun shows, Cabella’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods or through private sale transfers must involve background checks.

“The problem with that is it is public policy and if they want to make public policy, have at it,” Stanek said. He said sheriffs don’t make public policy; they only enforce public policy. “Sheriffs sure as heck will influence public policy and that’s why we are taking a look at this, discovering some of the gaping holes as I say. He’s (Obama) committed and trying to fix that and we are going to help him do it.”

The drive to end gun violence across America is not a partisan political issue, Stanek said. “I serve in a nonpartisan office here in Minnesota – You don’t change someone’s principles and values. I have been very clear about what my principles and values are. Having said that, I choose to be at the table to be part of the solution, not part of partisan political rhetoric.”

Stanek and others studied nine mass shootings in U.S. in 2012.  Newtown, Conn. was last one. Six people were killed at a Minneapolis business last September. Eight of those nine shooters had mental illness, Stanek said. “You’re talking about mass shootings and there is a direct link with mental illness; I don’t think you are going to find anyone who is going to deny that,” Stanek said.

Big issues are not new to Stanek. He addresses them in his role as sheriff and accepted them when he was a Republican legislator and also as commissioner of public safety. Some decisions he has made have been controversial.

Many wonder what challenges lie ahead for Sheriff Stanek. Some believe he may seek higher political office, the U.S. Senate or even governor. “There are lots of challenges ahead and we take take them on one by one. I will continue with my bully pulpit, advocating what the right thing to do is,” Stanek said.

Howard Lestrud can be reached at [email protected]