Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
MINNEAPOLIS - This city has managed to shed the moniker of "Murder-apolis," the ugly nickname it was tagged with during the worst days of the crack and gang wars of the 1990s, when it had a homicide rate that rivaled New York City.
The progress Minneapolis made reducing gun violence in the past few years has caught the attention of President Obama, who will visit the city Monday for his first trip outside the Beltway to tout his plan to overhaul the nation's gun laws.
Even as Minneapolis is being held up by the White House as a community that's been ahead of the curve in pushing the conversation on gun violence, city leaders here are clamoring for Congress and state lawmakers to implement tougher gun laws. They say it is a necessity to further reduce the epidemic of gun violence in their city.
"We have done so much, and we're committed to doing more," said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a Democrat. "But there is also only so much you can do at this level to prevent illegal guns from getting into the hands of kids, the mentally ill and people who shouldn't have them."
The White House has praised Minneapolis for a youth violence initiative the city launched in 2008 that has had success. And a bipartisan push by sheriffs in Minnesota to improve the state's background check system for gun buyers - including speeding up the input of felony and drug convictions, along with mental-health court orders - has also piqued administration interest.
"If you want to get right down to it, we have an access problem," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, a Republican who is backing the push for bolstering background checks. "Those who should not have guns is what we should focus on."
The president's visit comes as the Democratic Farm Labor-controlled state Legislature begins debate this week on a slew of proposals to change gun regulations, including bills calling for a statewide ban on assault weapons and a limit on the size of ammunition clips.
Those proposals mirror some of what Obama wants to do on the federal level. Backers of the gun control proposals face stiff opposition from some state lawmakers in rural areas as well as gun owner groups.
Joe Olson, who heads the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, said that much of the legislation being proposed is unnecessary and has little chance of making it through the Legislature. "The legislation is coming from the Democratic-wing that wishes they lived in Boston or New York," Olson said. "They are trying very hard to bring values to Minnesota that don't fit."
The violence here in Minneapolis, the state's largest city, peaked in 1995, when the city saw 99 murders, a spike of more than 50% from the previous four years. After leveling off in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this city of 387,000 faced another troubling trend. In a stretch between 2003 and 2006, some 80 Minneapolis residents ages 15 to 24 were killed - mostly by gunfire - making homicide the leading cause of death for young people in the city.
"The difference between the surge of violence in the 1990s and the surge we saw a few years ago was that those involved were much younger and much less predictable," Rybak said.
In response, the city launched a series of initiatives targeting youth in the most violent neighborhoods in the city. Among the steps the city has taken to reduce violence are: connecting high-risk youth with mentors, establishing a tip line where young people can call or text in tips about illegal weapons and mandating psycho-social assessments of every youth who comes into a city hospital with a violent injury.
Rybak says the initiatives have helped reduce the city's crime rate, which was up in 2012 after hitting a 30-year low in 2011. Minneapolis has also seen a 66% decrease in the number of youths involved in gun-related incidents and a 41% drop in youth injured by gun violence over the past five years.
But gun violence remains a serious problem here.
Obama will visit the north side of the city, a poor and predominantly African-American area where nearly two-thirds of the city's gun violence took place in 2012.
On Friday, a 17-year-old gang member, Stephon Shannon, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for the shooting death of 5-year-old Nizzel George. Nizzel was struck by a bullet as he slept on a couch in his grandmother's house, just blocks from a police outpost where Obama will deliver his remarks.
Six months before Nizzel's killing, another north Minneapolis boy, 3-year-old Terrell Mayes, was fatally wounded by a stray bullet, when he went scurrying for cover after he heard the sound of gunfire outside his house. Gunfire incidents were so frequent in his neighborhood that his family had developed a protocol. Mayes was running to his safe spot - with a spaghetti dinner in hand - when he was struck.
And in September, the city was shaken when a 36-year-old man with a history of mental illness opened fire at the north Minneapolis business Accent Signage System after he was fired from his jobs. He killed six before he turned the gun on himself. Police later found thousands of rounds of ammunition at the gunman's home.
"Newtown was a tragedy that shocked America," said City Council member Don Samuels in an interview at his home in one of the city's most violent neighborhoods. "What is happening in north Minneapolis is a slow-moving massacre."
Sami Rahamim, 17, the son of one of the victims of the last year's mass shooting incident in Minneapolis, recalled having a conversation about gun control with his father, Reuven Rahamim, weeks after the July mass shooting at the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting that left 12 dead and wounded dozens of others.
His father was astonished that no new laws were passed after then-representative Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was grievously wounded and six others were killed at a constituents' event in January 2011.
Reuven and five of his employees would be killed weeks after that conversation, and less than three months later 20 children and six adults would be killed in Newtown.
After the Newtown shooting, Rahamim said he was moved to act, and he's spent the weeks since the tragedy roaming the halls of the state capital in St. Paul, lobbying lawmakers to act. "It may be impossible the fully end gun violence, but we can do something to reduce it," Rahamim said. "This is the way I can honor him."