MINNEAPOLIS — A shift in the balance of power at the state Capitol has boosted the odds of lawmakers passing bills to reduce gun violence during the upcoming legislative session.
The Democratic takeover of the Minnesota House includes so many freshmen who support tougher gun laws that staunch gun control opponents now consider the chamber to be hostile territory. The Senate, where the GOP maintains a one-vote majority, remains a question mark, though the chamber's top Republican, Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of Nisswa, has signaled "some openness" to discussing gun proposals that got blocked in previous sessions .
Sen. Ron Latz, a Democrat from St. Louis Park, said he expects some kind of bill will become law for universal background checks for gun purchasers. He said he also expects approval of a "red flag" law that would let families and police get court orders to temporarily take guns away from people who are a danger to themselves or others. He lost a procedural effort to force a vote on both proposals last session.
"We have a pretty good chance this year of convincing suburban legislators who might have been reluctant in the past to vote for these bills."
That's because Democratic gains in the House came at the expense of suburban Republicans. No senators were up for re-election, but several suburban Republican senators could be vulnerable if the trend continues for 2020.
Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's Everytown for Gun Safety organization backed many of the Democrats who flipped Republican seats. Its affiliate, Moms Demand Action, and an allied group, Protect Minnesota, plan a big lobbying push starting on the first day of the session, when they'll kick off their campaign with a rally at the Capitol.
Suburban voters in general, and suburban mothers in particular, tend to support "reasonable measures" to keep guns from people who shouldn't have them and remove them from people who pose an immediate threat, said Sen. Scott Jensen of Chaska, one of two Senate Republicans who supported background checks in 2018.
In the House, Rep. Dave Pinto, a Ramsey County prosecutor, was the lead sponsor of the two bills last session. He said there's a "significant chance" his background checks bill will take a more flexible approach this time, relying on permits to purchase guns instead of requiring a background check at a gun shop at the time of each sale.
"I don't think people are in the mood for broken politics anymore," the St. Paul Democrat said. "They're in a mood to get things done."
While Jensen and Sen. Paul Anderson of Plymouth broke ranks with fellow Republicans last session, their votes won't be enough for a Senate majority.
That's because some rural Democratic senators have been reliable votes against gun restrictions, said Rob Doar, political director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, which advocates for defending the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. He named Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook, and Sens. David Tomassoni of Chisholm, Kent Eken of Twin Valley and Dan Sparks of Austin.
But gun control supporters have an ally in Gov.-elect Tim Walz, who got "A'' grades from the National Rifle Association in his early years in Congress before breaking with the gun lobby after the mass shootings in Las Vegas and at a Florida high school.
Gun control opponents say Republicans shouldn't forget who their friends have been.
"If Paul Gazelka wants to maintain his Senate majority in 2020, he will not stab gun owners in the back by doing a deal on gun control," said Ben Dorr, political director of Minnesota Gun Rights, which touts itself as the state's only "no compromise" gun rights group. "... If there are any heroes of the Second Amendment in the Senate, now would be the time for them to step forward."