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A stricter system of gun background checks appears to have strong popular support among Minnesotans and is getting traction in other states dominated by Democrats, but extending such checks to privately sold handguns and assault-style weapons is foundering at the State Capitol.
Divisions within the DFL, whose broad legislative majorities span gun-control enthusiasts from the Twin Cities and Second Amendment stalwarts from rural Minnesota, have brought the bill to a halt in the House. Fixed geographic opposition to anything resembling “gun control,” an impressive turnout by gun owners at the Capitol and skillful lobbying by the NRA side have succeeded in persuading some legislators that a background check today could lead to registering, and possibly confiscating, that weapon tomorrow.
“There’s a perception that universal background checks are something more than they really are,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who does not give universal checks much of a chance in the Senate this year. “I think a lot of gun owners in the state think that universal background checks are a way to implement gun registration. That’s not what it is, but that’s what a lot of gun owners perceive it to be.”
On Wednesday, Colorado’s governor signed into law some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, including a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines and background checks on private sales and online purchases. In Minnesota, the debate appeared headed toward a more modest goal of checking the background of private purchases at gun shows, stopping gun trading by intermediaries and cracking down on possession of weapons by felons.
It’s a far cry from the “sea change” Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, a longtime advocate of universal background checks, felt immediately following the massacre of schoolchildren at Newtown, Conn., in December. Since then:
• The idea of banning certain assault weapons and ammunition magazines drew such vehement opposition that it was immediately dropped.
• Paymar was forced to abandon his universal checks bill in committee Tuesday and agree to extending checks only to private sales at gun shows.
• Language sought by police to give them more discretion in denying gun permits to people with mental health issues and frequent police contacts also was jettisoned.
“I’m not giving up on this,” said Paymar Wednesday. He noted that the stronger language remains alive in the Senate, and said he still hopes to get a full floor vote on his original proposal. Heather Martens, head of Protect Minnesota, which has organized support for universal checks, believes the over-70-percent popular support in polls eventually will wear down the opposition.
Division among DFLers
But the odds appear to be turning against them.
Both Bakk and House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said universal background checks would have a hard time winning floor votes. With solid GOP opposition, the DFL would need to be single-minded on this issue to prevail.
And it isn’t.
The DFL encompasses the entire range of views on gun control and the Second Amendment. That means Paymar of St. Paul and Rep. Joe Mullery of north Minneapolis, who favor gun restrictions to limit the violence they see in their cities, must work with DFLers like Reps. John Ward of Baxter and John Persell of rural Bemidji, who represent areas where hunting support for a broadly-defined Second Amendment are part of the political and cultural fabric.
“I live in the woods, on the edge of some semi-wild area,” Persell said. “And sometimes, I get something like a skunk coming around that’s hanging around my yard, and I have to go shoot him. And I do that. ... So my perception of firearms in my basement or in my gun safe is different from somebody in the inner city. ... You hear a firearm discharge in the city, it’s not good.”
Added Ward: “Firearms in a rural district means hunting and sustenance. Down here [in St. Paul], they see it as damage to a person. And they are both right. Let me emphasize — they are both right.”
Urban vs. rural culture
Mullery, whose north Minneapolis district has seen some of the state’s worst gun violence, said the cultural divide was summed up by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “In Milwaukee, if someone yells ‘Duck!’ you fall on the floor, because someone’s shooting at you,” Mullery said, paraphrasing Barrett.” If you’re in rural Wisconsin and somebody yells ‘Duck!’ you grab your guns and you go hunting for the ducks.”
The divide means that many rural DFLers with high ratings by the National Rifle Association oppose banning weapons or expanding checks to all private sales.
They view crime as a complicated issue that requires attention to such issues as mental health and criminal sentencing, and tend to view Paymar’s bill as an imposition on law-abiding gun-owners that will not pose a significant barrier for those who intend to do harm.
It has fallen to House Speaker Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis DFLer who personally supports universal background checks, to try to bring the two sides together. He said he did not try to impose a solution, but helped broker the agreement that resulted in background checks for gun shows only. In most years, that would be thought of as a significant gain for gun-control advocates. But this year, their expectations are higher.
“This is one of those issues where, what people bring with them to the Capitol leads them to different conclusions about what we ought to do,” Thissen said. “And that is what the legislative debate is all about.”