A group of DFL legislators backed by activists, law enforcement leaders and family members of gun victims said Thursday they would push for universal background checks on gun purchases in Minnesota, arguing that they have wide support from state residents.
The effort, supported by several national gun-safety organizations, faces tough odds at the State Capitol. Republicans who control the House vowed to block any laws limiting gun purchases in the legislative session that got underway this week, and the GOP historically has been able to count on support from rural DFLers to prevent such measures.
“I would say from the outset, and the discussion early on, that it’s an uphill battle,” said Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-Cottage Grove, a police officer who’s sponsoring the bill in the House. “But you can’t lose hope. You can’t lose faith that there’s an opportunity for people to see the wisdom in doing the right thing.”
A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll in January found 82-percent support for criminal background checks on all gun sales, including at gun shows, through online sellers and in private transactions. Right now under state law, only sales by federally licensed firearm dealers are subject to background checks; Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said that covers only about 60 percent of gun sales in Minnesota.
At a separate State Capitol rally Thursday by the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, promised the crowd that Republicans would be a “firewall” against new gun control measures. Rep. Tony Cornish, chairman of the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee and an outspoken supporter of gun rights, left little hope for supporters of wider background checks.
“They just don’t have the votes,” said Cornish, R-Vernon Center, adding that he has no intention of hearing the background-check bill or any other gun-control measures in the committee he chairs.
Schoen and Latz are backed by the national gun-control groups Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which sprung up in response to the 2012 mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead.
“Background checks keep guns out of the hands of criminals, domestic abusers and the violent mentally ill,” said Marit Brock, chapter leader for Moms Demand Action in Minnesota. “Fewer women are killed by domestic abusers, fewer law enforcement officers are killed in the line of duty and we see gun suicides nearly cut in half in the states that have implemented background checks on all sales.”
Schoen said most background checks take 90 seconds to complete. “Law-abiding gun owners don’t mind waiting 90 seconds to purchase their gun,” said Schoen. He and Latz disputed the notion, aired at the gun owners’ rally, that wider background checks amount to “registration” of gun owners.
Cornish, a retired police officer, rejected the idea that wider background checks would reduce gun violence. “It’s almost certainly not going to do any good,” he said.
Both the news conference on gun violence and the gun rights rally drew sizable crowds. Both groups are trying to apply political pressure: the gun-control activists pushed their priorities last week in resolutions at dozens of caucus meetings throughout Minnesota. At the gun rights rally, Andrew Rothman, president of the gun owners’ alliance, urged demonstrators to be heard.
“We have a lot of friends in the House and Senate, on both sides of the aisle,” Rothman said. “The message to them is: no compromise. Not one inch.”
DFL supporters of tighter gun laws have struggled to build support even within their own party, and were unable to advance a series of gun-control measures in 2013 when they had full control of state government. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton himself has been reluctant to embrace the efforts, although he has previously signaled he’s open to broader background checks.
“I am sensitive to districts where it could potentially impact the outcome of the election,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. The DFL’s Senate majority likely depends on holding several rural districts in the November election with large populations of gun owners and sportsmen.
Bakk said he might be willing to support the wider background checks if they include exemptions for weapons transfers between family members. Latz said that likely would be part of the legislation.
Even as some rural DFLers face political risk by incurring the wrath of the National Rifle Association, the anti-gun-violence activists could try to pressure suburban Republicans from districts where voters widely support background checks.
“I would say that if you represent a district that overwhelmingly supports this, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you probably want to pay attention to that,” Schoen said.