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Ex-FBI agent: Assault gun would have killed more at Red Lake

John Egelhof of Bemidji tells a Minnesota House committee Wednesday that had a 2005 Red Lake school shooter had an assault rifle, the death toll could have been much higher. Don Davis | Forum News Service

ST. PAUL – Jeffrey Weise shot and killed his grandfather on March 21, 2005, and tried to load a semi-automatic rifle.

But former FBI agent John Egelhof of Bemidji told a Minnesota House committee Wednesday that the rifle, the type that would be banned under a bill state lawmakers are considering, jammed and Weise was forced to use less efficient guns when he went to a Red Lake school in northwestern Minnesota. The 16-year-old shot and killed seven people at the school, after killing his grandfather and a companion, and then killed himself.

Had Weise been able to use the “assault” rifle, Egelhof said, the death toll could have been much higher.

“I believe in God,” Egelhof said in an interview, because the grandfather’s rifle jammed.

Egelhof, stationed in Bemidji in 2005, delivered some of the most emotional testimony Wednesday as the Minnesota House public safety committee heard testimony on both sides of a bill that would ban so-called assault weapons.

“I have held the bodies of dead children and teachers,” he said about his FBI work in Red Lake, adding that an assault weapons ban would reduce the number of deaths in mass shootings.

More gun bill meetings are planned for Thursday, but the first committee votes on the issue are not likely before the end of the month.

While the Newtown, Conn., school shooting is freshest in Americans’ minds, the Red Lake shooting often is used as an example of a mass shooting closer to home.

Egelhof, still living in Bemidji, said that even though the two sides of the topic appear to be polar opposites, “in a reasonable society we can come to compromise.”

Still, he said: “The only real use with these tools is to kill our fellow citizens.”

Rep. Tony Cornish, a long-time law enforcement officer, said AR-15 “assault” rifles that are among those targeted in the bill are some of the most popular hunting guns in the country. The south-central Minnesota Republican said society would be “neutered” if gun-control advocates succeed in removing guns from Americans.

He said the Red Lake shooter could have been stopped had someone in the school been armed. A security guard did not have a gun.

Cornish and some other Republicans say they would like to allow teachers and other school workers to carry guns. However, Cornish said that idea does not have a chance in a Democratic-controlled Legislature and he will not pursue it this year.

Tim Jezrerski of Two Harbors told the committee that his wife relied on a semi-automatic rifle to protect their children when he was on a business trip to Fargo, N.D.

He said his wife received a death threat, but law enforcement officers said there was nothing they could do. She told them she already had loaded her gun.

“I would rather that she not run out of bullets,” he said about the need for high-capacity ammunition clips often associated with assault rifles. “That’s why I oppose this bill.”

Gun supporters told the committee that what they say are mistakenly called assault weapons are nothing more than fancy hunting rifles with nice scopes, big clips and other add-ons.

Those opposed to the assault rifle ban displayed two rifles, a rare occurrence in a legislative committee. They said one was a typical deer-hunting rifle and the other was what is called an assault weapon, but the two basically were the same.

A federal ban on assault guns that expired in 2004 did not work, Chris Rager of the National Rifle Association said. “This firearms ban, it’s a failed policy.”

All three House gun meetings have packed the State Office Building committee room with a couple hundred spectators, mostly gun rights supporters, and filled overflow rooms where people could watch the proceedings on television monitors.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.