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The failure of gun-control legislation in Washington this week is raising the stakes for Minnesota's debate, where a push for background checks on private sales of handguns and semiautomatic rifles has run into resolute opposition from gun-rights supporters.
The two sides in the Minnesota debate alternately took heart and were deflated by the U.S. Senate's votes Wednesday, which defeated universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Minnesota advocates say the federal decision means the states must act on their own. Others say the vote shows that momentum for anti-gun violence measures is waning.
Several states under Democratic leadership have strengthened state gun laws since the massacre of 6- and 7-year-olds at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December, including New York, Colorado, Maryland and Connecticut. The background checks bill in DFL-controlled Minnesota, while moving ahead in the Senate and endorsed by Gov. Mark Dayton, has run up against a gun-rights roadblock in the House.
Legislators on both sides had been looking to Washington for guidance.
"I sort of feel like the Senate put up the white flag," said Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, who has long struggled to pass universal background checks for private sales of handguns and certain semiautomatic rifles. "I'm very disappointed. I think most Americans are, who wanted nominally to do something about gun violence in this country."
On the opposing side was a jubilant Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center. "The NRA was slugged silly when this started out," said Cornish, who has championed expanded gun rights at the Legislature and worked to block Paymar's proposals at every turn. "They convince people that gun control measures that were put forth weren't going to stop Sandy Hook or the Gabby Giffords shooting … I think it is a great victory for gun owners."
Minnesota's debate, also inspired by Sandy Hook, quickly eliminated bans on assault weapons or ammunition magazines and has focused on background checks of private sales. With strong support from the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and the gun-control group Protect Minnesota, Paymar and Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, are seeking to extend background checks to most private sales of handguns and semiautomatic, military-style assault weapons.
Currently, only sales by licensed firearms dealers are subject to mandatory background checks. The police group says this creates huge loopholes that allow otherwise disqualified buyers to obtain guns on the Internet, out of a car trunk or at gun shows. Latz and Paymar say their bills do not apply to traditional hunting rifles and also specifically create exemptions for weapons sales among relatives.
House floor vote in doubt
With gun-rights advocates packing committee rooms, and the NRA and local gun-rights groups lobbying GOP members and rural DFLers, Paymar was unable to get a strong background checks bill out of his own Public Safety Committee. He passed a weaker bill that applies only to private sales at gun shows and that does not require a third party to conduct background checks.
He calls that bill "flawed" and hopes that once it arrives on the House floor, a fuller background checks amendment might be offered. But he admits that could be difficult.
Paymar said the vote in Washington, which received a majority but not the 60-vote supermajority needed, shows how difficult the issue is. "Politicians don't want to touch this issue," he said. "I know there are a lot of people in my caucus that wish this issue would just go away."
Joe Olson, a Hamline University law school professor and president of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, which has helped lead the fight against gun control and background checks in Minnesota, said the U.S. Senate vote helps his cause. He refers to universal checks as "universal registration" — a claim that supporters call a falsehood.
"I think legislators in Minnesota will realize as people in Washington did that universal registration is simply a hassle for gun owners and not a device that would have stopped any mass shootings," Olson said.
Dennis Flaherty, head of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said the fact that "public officials in Washington didn't have the guts to do the right thing" should persuade Minnesota legislators to act.
"If anything, I think it serves to help us," Flaherty said. "Minnesota has always taken the lead in things like this."
Latz noted that a majority of the U.S. Senate actually favored background checks — just not enough to meet the 60-vote barrier to prevent a filibuster. He believes his stronger background checks bill eventually will get a floor vote and pass.
"I still believe we have the votes in the Minnesota Senate to pass a broader expansion of background checks to cover almost all private sales," Latz said.
Dayton: 'Life and death'
Before the U.S. Senate vote this week, Gov. Mark Dayton, speaking at the dedication of a memorial highway to slain Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker, gave background checks a ringing endorsement, citing polls showing strong public support.
"It's a matter of policy, just trying to save lives," Dayton said. "This is vitally important, this is life and death for innocent Minnesota citizens, for law enforcement officers like officer Decker and just for the basic cohesion of our society, which is seriously damaged any time one of the senseless murders of vast numbers of people is perpetrated. We owe it to ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, to do everything we possibly can, to prevent that from happening."
A spokesman for Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson said neither Swanson nor her office has taken a position on the issue. Swanson, a DFLer who serves as the state's chief legal officer, was endorsed by the NRA and received its highest rating in her 2010 re-election.