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Six weeks of debate in the Legislature that included such proposals as banning assault weapons and extending background checks to all weapons sales produced a stripped-down bill Thursday that extends checks only to private sales made at gun shows.
The House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, scene of packed hearings on the topic of preventing gun violence since early February, voted 10-8 along party lines to pass a bill that included few of the stronger provisions that gun-control advocates sought.
“I think we made some progress,” said Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, the committee chair and sponsor of the panel’s original gun-violence bill.
While his original bill would have extended background checks to all private sales of handguns and assault weapons, and made other changes to keep weapons out of the hands of people with criminal histories or mental illness, the final version would extend checks only to those private sales of those two types of firearms that are made during a gun show. It also includes noncontroversial provisions sought by prosecutors to prevent juveniles from possessing weapons and to prevent certain violent felons from ever regaining the right to own a weapon.
Still, all GOP members and one DFLer, Rep. John Ward of Baxter, voted against it. Ten DFLers supported it, including Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, whose opposition to Paymar’s stronger bill forced him to strip it down to get it out of committee.
“This is not a background checks bill,” said Tom Goldstein, a citizen who has been pitching for a stronger bill. “It is the start of a background checks bill.”
Both Paymar and Heather Martens, head of Protect Minnesota, said they hoped the bill could be strengthened when it gets to the House floor. That is the next stop for the bill.
But Chris Rager, lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said that group opposes even the gun-show background checks. “It’s woefully short on getting something accomplished,” Rager said, and his supporters are likely to try to eliminate the gun-show language. Opposition by the NRA side already killed proposals to ban weapons or high-capacity magazines.
Paymar has been seeking to get a universal background checks past DFL-dominated committees for several legislative sessions, and this was his first success. “After the Newtown tragedy, there’s a sea change going on, and people want to do something about gun violence,” Paymar said.
‘This is what we could get’
Under current state and federal laws, all buyers of firearms in Minnesota who go to a licensed dealer undergo a background check through the federal system. In addition, Minnesota law requires purchasers of two classes of weapons — handguns and semiautomatic, military-style assault weapons — to first obtain a permit from local law enforcement. That process involves a waiting period and additional state and local background checks.
Currently, all these background checks do not apply to private purchases of weapons, and police fear that this creates a huge breach in the system where people who would fail background checks can buy whatever weapon they want.
Under the new House bill approved Thursday night, buyers at gun shows would be legally required to show their permits. There would be no involvement of licensed firearms dealers in the transaction. “This didn’t go as far as I would have liked it,” Paymar said. “This is what we could get out of committee.”
Gov. Mark Dayton has supported universal checks, and said this week that “something is better than nothing.”
“It wouldn’t be the bill that I would write, but that’s the nature of the process,” he said of the gun-show-only version.
The Senate gun-violence bill, sponsored by Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, would require background checks of all private purchases of handguns and assault weapons. Private sales of traditional hunting rifles, and sales of any weapons among family members, would not be covered. Latz’s bill is pending in the Senate Rules Committee, and it is not clear whether the Senate will limit the scope of its bill in light of the action in the House.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042