Activists concerned about gun laws crowded into the State Office Building Tuesday as the Legislature kicked off three days of hearings on gun control, background checks and other proposals to limit gun violence.

Gun-rights supporters wearing buttons that read "Self Defense is a human right" appeared to dominate the turnout, although gun-control activists were also in evidence.

Committee member Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center. who has vowed to defeat any bill that smacks of gun-control, wore a lapel pin of an assault weapon and a flaming scarlet NRA tie.

The House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee began three days of hearings into a dozen bills aimed at preventing gun violence in the wake of the massacre of 6- and 7-year olds in Newtown, Conn. in December. The hearings kicked off a day after President Obama visited Minneapolis to promote his own gun-control agenda.

First up was a bill sponsored by the committee chairman, Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul,that would expand state background checks that now apply to sales of pistols and assault weapons by licensed gun dealers. Paymar said his bill would extend the same checks to gun shows, internet sales and private sales.

Currently, he said these are "loopholes" that allow people who are not legally allowed to purchase weapons -- such as violent felons and people who have been committed for mental illness -- to buy guns.

The second bill, proposed by Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, would allow local police departments to take a person's known mental health issues into account when deciding whether to grant a permit to purchase weapons.

Representatives of the state's police officers and police chiefs spoke in favor of Paymar's bill, saying it was a reasonable way to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, emphasizing that he supports the 2nd Amendment as a constitutional right, spoke in favor of Schoen's bill.

But Cornish, the National Rifle Association, the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance and others testified against both bills. They said they worried that Paymar's bill would lead to registering gun owners, which Paymar said is false and a frequent "scare tactic" used by the NRA.

The hearings continue at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Room 10 of the State Office Building.

Rep. Tony Cornish, NRA member and gun-rights legislator




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