Remembering Barb: Turning grief into action against gun violence

October 8, 2013


Taylor Martin-Romme
Zenith City Weekly

Since I first interviewed Joan Peterson in early August, 61 Minnesotans have died by gunshot, based on averages from the state Department of Health. Statistically, about 40 of those were suicides.

From the time I’m writing this until the time you’re reading it, an average of 2,600 people in the US will have died from gun-related injuries. Roughly one-third of those are homicides, with accidental shootings, self-defense, and those of indeterminate or other causes accounting for only about two percent combined.

As Co-President of the Northland Chapter of the Brady Campaign, Peterson wants to change that. Since 2000, the group has held rallies, lobbied the legislature, and acknowledged shootings by ringing a memorial bell. “We try to keep victims out there in front because, after all, that’s what this is about, preventing more victims.”

The national Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence formed in 1974, but changed its name in 2001 to honor James Brady, who was injured in the 1981 assassination attempt on former President Ronald Reagan.

Peterson’s fight is more personal. On August 5, 1992, her sister, Barb, was shot and killed by her estranged husband. “It took me years to talk about it in public and not break down crying.”

Barb was in the midst of a messy divorce. “She was worried about him. He had left her some messages on her answering machine and she went to his home. We’re not sure exactly what happened, but she was found in the basement...My sister was shot three times.”

Three months after the murder, Barb’s husband killed himself, which spared the family the agony of a trial. Still, Peterson’s beloved sister was lost to her forever.

Peterson began lobbying for regulation of gun ownership, including background checks on all sales, waiting periods (“If a person is in that much of a hurry to get a gun, then I have a problem with that”), and making sure those who are not allowed to own a gun, such as convicted felons, don’t slip through the cracks.

Her critics might be surprised at how moderate her position is. “I grew up in a hunting family. My dad took me out and taught me how to shoot a .22. He wanted me to be a hunter, but I didn’t like it. All my family had friends who hunted. We have hunting guns in our home.

“It’s not about banning guns. There are 300 million guns in circulation. That would be a ridiculous task. I write a blog and [critics] say, ‘You just want to take our guns away!’ I don’t want your guns.”

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1994 mandated background checks and waiting periods. It prohibited felons, drug addicts, the adjudicated mentally ill and domestic abusers from owning guns, as well as those who are in the country illegally and those with a dishonorable discharge from the military.

The Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional because it “forced participation of the State’s executive in the actual administration of a federal program.”

For many gun enthusiasts, it’s a matter of protecting the Second Amendment: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

But according to Joel Sipress, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, it is impossible that the framers of the constitution viewed the Second Amendment in the way gun rights advocates do today.

“The militia was basically a part-time citizens’ military force. It was a non-professional organization made up of ordinary citizens who devoted time as needed.

“One key thing about the militia at the time of the American Revolution is that it was organized under state law...They were organized, recognized, regulated, overseen by the state government. So think of it as a citizens’ self-defense force sponsored by the state government.  

“At the time of the American Revolution, most people who were advocates of...representative self-government saw professional standing armies as inherently destructive of liberty...In the US—and the colonies in particular—standing armies were associated with corrupt European monarchies. That’s what monarchies do; republics don’t have large, standing armies.

“What was so nasty about the Redcoats? Being a Redcoat [the British army from the 17th through 20th centuries] meant you were a professional soldier. You were a hireling of the king. That was seen as inherently at odds with republican self-government.”

Although the Second Amendment is popularly understood today as protecting citizens from a rogue government or military coup, Sipress says this is the exact opposite of what it meant to Colonial Americans.

“The militia was an alternative to a standing army, not a defense against a standing army...If you’re invaded, how do you defend yourself? If there’s an insurrection, how do you put it down? If there’s a war with Native Americans, how do you fight that war? And how do you do it in the absence of a standing army, because you see a standing army as inherently destructive to a republic?

“A citizens’ militia was seen as the form of national defense that was appropriate. If you had a militia, you wouldn’t need a standing army...And since it’s a part-time, grassroots, citizen-based military force, it can’t become an instrument of a tyrant the way a standing army could, because you’re not hirelings of the government.”

In addition, the Second Amendment was, at the time, written to specifically give states the ability to regulate those who carry guns. “You can’t understand the Second Amendment without recognizing just how much suspicion there was of standing armies.

“The whole purpose of the constitution was to create a more powerful central government than had existed under the Articles of Confederation. There was a lot of skepticism of this move to make central government more powerful by drafting the constitution.

“The Second Amendment was put in [the Bill of Rights] to make it clear that, despite the fact that there was now this central government that had the ability to create a professional military, there would remain the right of the people at the state level to organize and operate a militia made up of part-time soldiers.  

“Even if [the Second Amendment] does imply an individual right to bear arms, it implies it in the context of having a state-sponsored or state-regulated self-defense force because of the fear of a standing military.

“Even if you interpret the Second Amendment as implying a [individual] right to bear arms, it’s a right that’s clearly subject to regulation by state legislation. When it says ‘a well-regulated militia,’ what it’s saying is...the individual right to bear arms is subject to appropriate regulation by the people, through their elected representatives in state government.”

Peterson has little patience for those who interpret the Second Amendment in extremist and ahistorical ways. “We have different kinds of guns [now]. We have more people with guns. One of the organizations I know made a video of a man walking into a workplace with a gun. He didn’t hit anybody because it was a powder gun.


"The idea was that those were the kind of guns that were used when the Second Amendment was passed. It didn’t hurt anybody because they didn’t have bullets that spray around when you only shoot it once and, of course, when he stopped to reload, everybody was already gone.

“So the whole idea that we’re dealing with the same world as when [the Second Amendment] passed and that we shouldn’t change anything is ludicrous.”

She points to a “hostile takeover” of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in 1977. In what came to be called the “Cincinnati Revolution,” the NRA shifted its focus from sportsmen and hunters to protecting an absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment and a cozy financial relationship with weapons manufacturers.

“The corporate gun lobby is powerful enough that they’ve convinced a lot of legislators that if you [regulate guns], we might lose sales. If you pass a conceal-and-carry law in every state, that means more people are going to run out and buy guns. If you let the assault weapons ban [expire] in 2004, those guns are back on the market. They’re big sellers.

“The NRA isn’t just an organization that’s representing four million gun owners, as they claim. They are representing the gun manufacturers. They’re protecting profits and sales and, to me, that’s a travesty, because lives have been lost.

“I have a friend who...happens to be a member of the NRA...They sent him this letter that said, ‘This is your last chance to save your rights! If you don’t send us some money right now, your rights are going to be taken away by the Obama administration! Your guns are going to be taken away!’ It was just insane language. They ramp up this fear and paranoia and they get people’s undies all in bunch over this stuff.”

But Peterson sees hope for change as more and more lives are touched by gun violence. Joe Manchin, a US Senator from West Virginia, once ran a campaign ad that depicted him using a gun to “shoot” a law he didn’t support. Manchin had a change of heart after the Sandy Hook school shooting last December.

“He sat in the room with the parents of the Sandy Hook children and cried. He cried with them because he has grandchildren. And ever since that time, he has been a voice. He has gone after the NRA. He’s gone after people who were friends and supporters and he said no.

“I don’t think people could stand the thought of little kids. One little boy [at Sandy Hook], the whole lower half of his face was shot off. How many times was he shot? How many times do you shoot a little kid?  

“I sense a change there. I’ve seen gun owners writing editorials, even in Duluth. I’ve seen people drop their NRA membership. I’ve seen public opinion sort of gel. [The public] has always been in favor [of gun control], but now it’s stronger than ever. This is a moment and it would be awful if we let this moment pass. We can’t let one mass shooting after another happen.”

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