After a victory for universal background checks for gun sales in the Minnesota Senate this week, the battleground shifts to the House, where the issue has split DFL leaders.
Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, chairman of the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, is sponsoring a bill in the House similar to the one that passed a Senate committee Thursday night. He has scheduled it for a showdown vote in his committee on Tuesday.
In the meantime, he said, he is trying to work with Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who is sponsoring a competing measure supported by the National Rifle Association. Hilstrom's bill threatens to displace universal background checks with a focus on improving the current checks and going after intermediaries who transfer guns to criminals.
"I've met with Representative Hilstrom," Paymar said. "I'd like to get something that we can pass on universal background checks."
Hilstrom sits on Paymar's committee and is chair of the next committee the background checks bill would go to — the House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee.
"I need her support," Paymar said. "I need her to compromise with me, to get something that will satisfy law enforcement, that truly deals with background checks — not window dressing."
The conflict could determine the future of universal background checks this year.
Supporters of universal checks say there is a huge "loophole" in current law that permits private sales without the database background checks that apply when guns are purchased from licensed dealers. Opponents say the number of unchecked sales is small and that the law would impose on law-abiding gun-owners without affecting those causing gun violence.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed late Thursday a wide-ranging bill that includes universal background checks for all purchases of handguns and semi-automatic, military-style assault weapons — including sales between private individuals. Under the bill, private sales would have to be conducted with the assistance of a licensed dealer, who would conduct the required background checks.
Private sales of traditional hunting rifles would not be covered by the bill, nor would private sales between relatives.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, also gives local law enforcement officials more discretion in deciding whether to grant permits to purchase or carry weapons. More extensive mental health information and concerns raised during police calls could be used to deny permits under the bill.
It passed on a 5-3 vote party-line vote. Police officers and the gun-control group Protect Minnesota supported it, while the NRA and local gun-rights supporters opposed it.
On the House side, Hilstrom's bill would require the state to provide better mental health commitment information to the federal background check system, to crack down on false reports of guns stolen or lost, and to increase sentences for felons convicted of illegally possessing a gun. The bill also adds offenses to the list of crimes of violence, which carry a lifetime ban from gun ownership.
Paymar said he told Hilstrom he would merge her bill within his background checks bill.
"I'm willing to compromise to get something meaningful done," he said. "But I'm not going to pass some watered-down bill just to say we did something when we really didn't."