Republicans who control the Minnesota Senate are formulating a package of pro-gun measures for the upcoming session of the Legislature, including proposals to carry firearms without a permit and protect gun owners who fire in self-defense.
The GOP bills taking shape just weeks before the Legislature convenes stand in sharp contrast to DFL plans to expand criminal background checks and institute "red flag" laws allowing the courts to temporarily remove guns from people deemed dangerous to themselves and others.
The gulf between the two sides will come into sharp focus Tuesday when state lawmakers gather in Hibbing to debate a half-dozen new gun proposals at a special hearing, the second of two meetings convened by the Republican-led Senate's judiciary committee ahead of the Feb. 11 start of the legislative session. An earlier meeting in St. Paul last month focused on existing gun laws in the state. Nothing will be up for a vote, but Senate Republicans are expecting to use the hearing to galvanize support for their counterproposals to ongoing calls for new firearms restrictions. Those bills, plus several bipartisan measures to keep guns out of the hands of felons and domestic abusers, will sketch out the contours of a roiling political fight that is likely to play out throughout the coming legislative session and the November elections, when control of both the state House and Senate will be up for grabs.
The Judiciary Committee's chairman, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the prospects remain dim for the Democratic gun control proposals, both of which passed in the DFL-controlled House last year but were blocked in the Senate without formal hearings or votes.
"I'm interested in solutions that work, and in a divided government … that we have now, those types of extreme proposals just aren't going to pass," Limmer said.
Gun safety activists and Democrats such as state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, are meanwhile dismissing the public gathering in Hibbing as a "political show hearing."
"I think they finally feel like they're boxed in and they've got to make it look like they're proactive," said Latz, who is sponsoring new background check and red flag legislation for the 2020 Legislature.
Though no action will be taken on Tuesday, activists on both sides appear to be mobilizing for the hearing. Gun safety groups like Protect Minnesota will be busing advocates from Duluth, while Minnesota Moms Demand Action volunteers also will testify. Meanwhile the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus has heard from several hundred interested members, according to political director Rob Doar.
The GOP proposals focus on self-defense measures copied from "stand your ground" laws in other states.
If enacted, they would weaken or reverse Minnesota laws that generally permit deadly force only as a last resort. Gun rights groups and their GOP allies also are seeking to enact "Constitutional Carry" provisions — sometimes referred to as permitless carry — that guarantee the carrying of firearms by a law-abiding citizen without the need for government permission.
Doar said his group plans to push for floor votes on both measures this session, though he acknowledged that neither is likely to get through the Democratic-controlled House. Efforts to remove firearms from domestic abusers and increase penalties for felons in possession of guns are more likely to win bipartisan support.
Limmer said the rural Minnesota audience in Hibbing can be expected to provide valuable insight into how certain gun proposals would play outside the metro area.
Latz, meanwhile, is embracing the chance to address what he described as misconceptions about his two gun control bills. He said opponents have wrongly stated that the background check bill requires family members to be cleared before transferring firearms among themselves. The bill also does not require background checks on long guns like hunting rifles.
Sarah Mikesell, a Duluth volunteer with Minnesota Moms Demand Action, plans to testify in support of the two gun control bills and wants to show Republicans that there is support for such measures beyond the metro.
An October 2019 Star Tribune Minnesota Poll found that more than 8 out of 10 Minnesota voters favored expanding criminal background checks to cover private gun sales, including sales on the internet and at gun shows, which are now exempt.
Tuesday's hearing comes a day after thousands of guns-rights activists descended on the Capitol in Richmond, Va., to protest gun-control legislation promised by the state's Democratic leadership, which won control over state government last year on promises of new gun legislation, including an assault weapons ban.
Despite the protests, Mikesell pointed to Virginia as an important example of grassroots activism creating political support for new gun laws.
"When there's legislation out there that has a lot of evidence that it works, we want our legislators to take action," Mikesell said. "And as Virginia has shown us, if they don't take action we will work to elect legislators who will take action."
Doar meanwhile cited the pro-gun protest in Virginia as "an excellent indicator of what we can expect in Minnesota if there is total control in the hands of anti-gun Democrats."
Both sides in Minnesota have made clear that whatever action the Legislature takes or doesn't take on guns this session will have implications for control of the Legislature in November, when all 201 seats in the House and Senate are in play. First Lady Gwen Walz vowed at a gun safety rally last year that Democrats would target Republicans who stand in the way of new background check and red flag legislation, to which Limmer responded: "Bring it on."
"Quite honestly it is just sad that we have to have such an emotional reaction regarding a highly emotional issue," he said. "And then nothing but threats of legislative tenure when we're really trying to make sure we pass something that addresses the real problem."