Shortly after the Minnesota Citizens Personal Protection Act passed in 2003, after nine years of advocacy by GOCRA and legislative allies, the St. Paul Pioneer Press profiled the godfather of Minnesota gun rights, Professor Joseph E. Olson, founder and chairman of Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance.
The article no longer appears on the newspaper’s web archive. It is reproduced here from the Internet Archive for historical purposes.
Gun law’s author hit right on target
Joe Olson doesn’t just teach the Second Amendment as a law professor. He lives it as a prominent gun rights activist.
BY TIM NELSON
The man who put Minnesota’s new handgun permit law on the books doesn’t drape ammo belts around his shoulders, clench daggers in his teeth or paint his face with camouflage.
Joe Olson is a self-described “short, balding tax attorney” from Roseville.
He lives across the street from a golf course. He tinkers with a 1960 MG roadster and likes to sail. Until now, his most notable accomplishments have been a 1986 treatise, “Federal Taxation of Intellectual Property Transfers” and the “close corporation” amendments to the Minnesota Business Corporation Act.
“I am a perfect professor,” said Olson, who was one of the founding faculty members of the Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul.
Yet he has almost singlehandedly touched off one of the biggest political firestorms in modern Minnesota history. Standing at the desk in his law school office off Snelling Avenue, Olson wrote out, by hand, the legislation that became the Minnesota Personal Protection Act.
“Joe is the policy brain of gun laws for Minnesota. He is the go-to guy,” said Tim Grant, one of the organizers of Concealed Carry Reform, Now!, the group behind the change in Minnesota’s gun laws. “He is probably one of the top Second Amendment legal minds in the country.”
His opponents concede he is a formidable advocate.
“You may not agree with what he says, but you’ll find he is a very bright man, very articulate,” said Dennis Flaherty, St. Paul’s deputy mayor, who led the fight against expanding laws on handgun carrying when he was executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.
“But to live in Joe’s world, you would have a pistol on your belt, another under the front seat of your car, one in your nightstand and another under your pillow,” Flaherty said. “And there can be no restrictions on anywhere you want to go with a loaded gun. He has not been completely successful with that, but he’s come pretty darn close this time.”
And proud of it, Olson would add.
‘MY FIRST FIREARM’
Olson, 58, is the son of a World War II military pilot. He was born in Chicago and grew up on military bases across Europe. “The typical military kid,” he said, “I missed growing up with the Mickey Mouse Club and Hopalong Cassidy and all that.”
He went to high school in Texas and Nebraska and attended the University of Notre Dame, where he was “an ordinary person of no great note.” He joined the ROTC, like many of his classmates, and was prepared to follow his father into the Air Force.
He enlisted, but the Air Force decided to let him go to law school first. Olson found himself looking for a summer job before he started classes. He got one with the Office of Economic Opportunity in North Carolina, a “Great Society” welfare program intended to improve the lives of rural blacks.
“I discovered that there were people in bedsheets that wanted to kill me,” Olson said. “There you are driving your car with Missouri license plates down lonely country roads in rural North Carolina. This would have been 1967. And remember, (Michael) Schwerner and (Andrew) Goodman and (James) Chaney were killed in Mississippi just three years before. All of us knew their names and what had happened to them.”
Back at his office, he related his alarm at being followed by strangers, and his co-workers expressed surprise that he didn’t have a gun.
“And that’s how I got my first firearm,” Olson said. A co-worker gave him a pistol, and Olson put it in his pocket and later replaced it with one of his own. He wound up using it.
“Twice,” Olson recalled. “They’d pull up behind you, turn on their bright lights, get right up, 20, even 2 feet off your back bumper. I’d take it out, hold it up in front of the rearview mirror, and wave it back and forth. The lights would turn off, and the car would back off.”
No one got hurt, Olson quit his job that fall and eventually parted with his gun and continued his way through the world unarmed.
His first stop was Duke University’s law school. He did well enough there — he would graduate second in his class in 1970 — to attract notice from a partner at the Dorsey & Whitney law firm visiting from Minneapolis. Olson got a summer clerking job and a standing offer for a full-time job after that.
First, he had to serve his hitch with the Air Force, and even had orders to report to Vietnam at one point. Instead, he spent four years as a military attorney in the California desert, assigned to a tactical fighter squadron.
When he got out, he still didn’t take Dorsey & Whitney up on its offer. Olson saw an ad in the American Bar Association Journal and signed up to teach at the new Midwest School of Law in Minneapolis. (“A name chosen for its eminent dropability,” he joked.)
Four years later, the school became the liberal-leaning Hamline University School of Law, where Olson still is teaching and remains a tenured contradiction: It’s the home of such social justice programs as the Minnesota Innocence Project and the Dred and Harriet Scott Institute for International Human Rights.
State Rep. Len Biernat, a Minneapolis DFLer who voted against the new gun law, works down the hall from Olson — with a “… bans guns in these premises” poster on his office door.
But Robin Magee, a Hamline law professor, said Olson isn’t the anomaly that he seems on first blush.
She said the law school encourages faculty to be active in the community — which no one can deny in Olson’s case.
“I think he’s consistent with the regard we have for all civil liberties,” Magee added. “I sometimes think that people who are blindly consistent about Second Amendment rights typically don’t support other constitutional rights. They want rights for themselves. But Joe doesn’t buy into that.”
She even suspects he would be considered a Democrat anywhere but Minnesota.
Students, too, consider him open-minded.
“He’s tough,” recalled Minneapolis attorney Rich Ruohonen, who took Olson’s seminar on the Second Amendment to the Constitution in the fall of 1995. The class included a field trip to a local shooting range and a long paper due at the end.
“I actually took the opposite position that Joe takes,” Ruohonen said. “But I still got an A-minus. He said he disagreed, but that it was well done.”
At Hamline, Olson said he has found the “perfect job.”
“There’s a phenomenon when you teach a first-year class,” he said. “They don’t know anything. The language is new, it’s like teaching Chinese by immersion. But along about October, you see them catch on. You see the light in their eyes. It’s exciting.”
ACTIVIST IS BORN
Olson admits to an epiphany of his own — a revelation like St. Paul’s on the way to Damascus, as it were — except that it happened on U.S. 12, as he drove from Wayzata toward Minneapolis.
Olson recalls listening to the radio in his car one day in 1981 and hearing a news report that the city of Morton Grove, Ill., had banned handguns.
“I thought to myself, ‘That’s unconstitutional. I’m an American. I’m entitled to own and possess firearms,’ ” Olson said. “So I come into St. Louis Park, and there’s a gun shop. It’s the Frontiersman.”
Olson pulled off the highway, went into the gun shop and tried, unsuccessfully, to exercise his Second Amendment rights on the spot. Minnesota law required a three-day waiting period for handguns at the time, and Olson had to go home unarmed.
But he did eventually get his weapon and decided to add firearms law to his legal arsenal. He joined the National Rifle Association, got reacquainted with constitutional law — he’d dropped it twice while a student at Duke — and became one of the leading intellectual lights of the gun rights movement.
He has published a 21,000-word legal journal article on the restriction of gun rights in Britain. He founded Academics for the Second Amendment and is one of the “hard core” of Concealed Carry Reform, Now!, the grass-roots lobbying group that set out in 1996 to methodically expand Minnesota’s handgun permit law.
Even his cell phone rings with Rossini’s operatic homage to a marksman — the William Tell Overture.
For the Minnesota Personal Protection Act, he studied the laws from more than 30 other states with “shall issue” laws for carrying handguns, then literally cut and pasted them into the legislation that was introduced this spring.
And now, thanks to some old-fashioned politicking, such as attending political caucuses, enduring Republican Party conventions and buttonholing candidates at the Capitol, that idea has become reality.
He said it’s helped that he doesn’t have any children, and he credits the unflagging support of his wife, Mary, for the nearly 20 years he has put in lobbying for and against gun laws in Minnesota.
“It’s called democracy,” Olson said of the effort. “It works for those who show up.”
And he fully expects it to keep working.
He doesn’t, for instance, consider it a mistake that the new law requires private property owners to both post signs banning guns at their doors and tell visitors that they can’t be armed. The grammar has been the source of some controversy: Opponents say simply putting up signs should be sufficient to tell people guns aren’t welcome.
Olson disagrees. He said the language is based on Minnesota’s trespass laws: “The offense is, as it should be, failing to leave when asked,” Olson said. Changing the law, he adds, risks criminalizing innocent mistakes, like not noticing a sign.
He’s also planning to battle any attempts to ban weapons from public property — home turf for constitutional rights, he argues, from free speech to bearing arms. Such liberties are what made it public in the first place and guarantee its status for the future, by Olson’s reckoning.
There is plenty of disagreement on that point, as opponents have been rallying against Olson’s handiwork for weeks. Churches say the posting requirements infringe on religious freedom. Law enforcement officials fear it will make armed encounters dangerously ambiguous, since carrying a concealed weapon was overwhelmingly illegal in the past. Regular citizens have testified at public hearings of their fear for their own safety.
Olson calls the opposition “a tempest in a teapot. The churches aren’t going to win. …There aren’t going to be any other lawsuits. Signs are going to start coming down, and by February, this will be a non-issue.”
As it should be, according to Olson: He believes public access to firearms is a bulwark of civilized society — a deterrent to everything from carjacking to genocide.
“If you don’t have a gun, if you don’t have power — it doesn’t have to be guns, but it has to be real, personal power, individually and as citizens — if you don’t have that, then whatever you have is only there at the sufferance of government,” Olson said.
“The Founders all believed, and expressed in the Second Amendment — they all believed that there was a right of revolution at some point when government got too bad. Government had reached that point in their lives. They were unwilling, and did not define when that was. What they did in the Constitution, particularly in the Second Amendment, is that they left in place the infrastructure of citizen power.”
“How do you decide when the time has come?” he asks. “Grab your rifle and go out in the street. Look around and no one else is there? It’s not time. Go out, and three-quarters of your neighbors are standing there with their 20-gauge? It is time.”