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Three days of legislative hearings on gun violence, triggered by the Connecticut school massacre in December, have turned out large numbers of gun-rights supporters and made it clear that gun-control measures face a tough political fight.
The hearings at the State Capitol ended Thursday with a focus on body armor, high-capacity ammunition clips and the threats of gun violence to urban children. Every day, supporters of the National Rifle Association and the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance have packed committee rooms to overflowing, some bearing yellow "Self-defense is a human right" buttons and many reportedly armed.
"As law-abiding gun owners, they're tired of being blamed," said Andrew Rothman, vice president of the alliance, which has been lobbying at the Legislature for more than two decades. As legislators weigh gun restrictions, Rothman pointed out that his group's e-mail list is "well into six figures." He estimated that gun-rights supporters were 500 to 600 strong, far outnumbering those on the other side, and said they listened intently and respectfully during the hearings. No problems were reported.
But their presence was an indication of how seriously they are taking what appears to be the latest attempt to rein in a gun culture that some think has gone too far. "People are coming to us," Rothman said. "They find us in the phone book. They find us at gun shows."
Whether the turnout and e-mail messages to legislators will block bills supported by gun-control advocates is less clear. Heather Martens, head of Protect Minnesota, which advocates gun control and universal background checks, believes those attending most oppose a bill that would ban assault-style weapons, which are legal and popular and even manufactured in Minnesota.
"I don't think police officers have any more right to defend their own lives than citizens," said Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, when discussing the fact that officers use semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.
While retired law-enforcement officials testified for the assault weapons ban on Wednesday, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association did not, choosing instead to support a bill that would fill holes in the state's background check system. Supporters of that bill, sponsored by Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul and chairman of the committee conducting the gun violence hearings, remain confident.
Activists stayed well into Thursday evening, spilling into two overflow rooms. When Paymar called for public comments, the aisles were filled, mostly with men wearing self-defense buttons. "Do not legislate our good, law-abiding citizens' ability to protect themselves," said Steven Zerwas of Wyoming. Nate Timm, a sheriff's deputy in Red Wing, described the death of a fellow officer and said, "No gun law would have stopped that determined criminal." Others said they need assault-style weapons and larger magazines to protect their families.
On the other side was Bill Kraus of Plymouth, who said the amount of firepower is out of control. "We are in an arms race with ourselves," he said.
Don Samuels, a Minneapolis City Council member running for mayor, appeared with about 30 students from Best Academy in Minneapolis. He said the school had shown great success in helping black students achieve, but he worries about their safety in a part of the city that has gun violence.
When Samuels asked the children whether they knew someone who had been shot, almost every one of them raised a hand.
Samuels told legislators the children are "the most endangered human beings in any First World country in the world." He said the committee should balance the right to bear arms against the threat to children in neighborhoods where gun violence is a reality.
The committee heard a bill by Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, that would prohibit civilian ownership of bulletproof vests and other types of body armor unless granted a permit by the local police chief. Simonson said he is concerned that people who perpetrate mass shootings sometimes wear body armor.
Opponents questioned his knowledge of what shooters in Connecticut and Aurora, Colo., wore and said citizens should be able to use what they called purely defensive gear.
Joe Olson, president of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, said he keeps his bulletproof vest and Glock by his bedside. "When things go bang in the night, I put the vest on, pick up the gun and go investigate," he said.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, wants to keep the federal government out of state gun regulation. He has introduced a bill -- unlikely to go far in a DFL-controlled Legislature -- to make it a crime for a federal official to enforce new federal firearms laws or rules in Minnesota.
"This is a strong statement to the federal government that our state is not going to yield to more degradation of the Second Amendment," he said.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042