Foes call them "assault weapons" and say they should be banned, but supporters call them "semiautomatics" or "sporting rifles" and say they have become an accepted part of the hunting and gun culture in Minnesota.
Retired FBI agent John Egelhof, a member of the National Rifle Association and a hunter, was on the scene at the Red Lake school shootings in 2005 that left nine dead and five injured, mostly students. He favors a ban.
"Anyone can acquire a weapon and in seconds can decimate a roomful of innocent children and dedicated teachers or turn a cinema into a slaughterhouse," Egelhof told the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee on Wednesday, the second day of hearings on gun violence. "To me, who has held the bodies of dead children and teachers, and seen my fellow friends and law enforcement officers slain, it is simply a moral issue."
A bill to ban the military-style weapons, sponsored by Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, has drawn perhaps the strongest reaction from the large numbers of determined gun owners who have filled the overflowing committee room this week. Her bill would cover such weapons as the AR-15-style rifles used in the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., in December and the movie theater killings in Aurora, Colo., last July.
Ban opponents argued that by defining assault weapons through such cosmetic elements as grip type, stock and detachable magazines, the bill could outlaw some traditional hunting weapons and even pistols. They noted that those who wanted to keep legally purchased weapons after the ban would have to register with the government, submit to background checks and allow inspections of their property where the gun is stored.
NRA spokesman Chris Rager called the bill "un-American." Said Rager: "I think there are many law-abiding Minnesotans who choose to have this type of firearm."
Egelhof and former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan, who also supports the ban, said the weapons can inflict so much damage so quickly that they do not belong in private hands.
"All this about 'modern sporting rifles' doesn't disguise, doesn't change the fact that this weapon was made for war," Egelhof said after the meeting.
The AR-15 is a magazine-fed, modified version of the fully automatic M-16 rifle carried by servicemen in Vietnam. It has since become one of the hottest semiautomatics in the industry.
Dolan said such rapid-fire weapons "should not legally be in the hands of any citizen. You don't need them for sport. You don't need them to hunt. You also don't need them for self-protection in the home."
Egelhof said Red Lake school shooter Jeffrey Weise would have inflicted far more damage had his assault rifle not jammed when he tried to load it that day. Weise left that weapon at home, taking instead his grandfather's Glock pistol and a pump-action shotgun.
Opponents of the ban say the federal assault-weapons ban in effect from 1994 to 2004 failed to reduce violent crime. Purchases of semiautomatic rifles have surged since then, they said, while violent crime is on a downward trajectory.
"You're going to turn thousands of law-abiding citizens into criminals if you pass this thing," said Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, a member of the committee.
The NRA's Rager said citizens have a right to purchase the firearms of their choice. "I didn't know it was a bill of needs and wants -- I thought it was a bill of rights," he said. "And now you're going to turn that right into a privilege."
One committee witness, John Booth, described an incident on July 4, 2009, in which his son was shot and wounded by a drunken man who was angry about people lighting off firecrackers. His son recovered and is himself a proficient shooter. Booth said that he believes no law would have prevented the shooting and that he opposes the ban.
"Don't take away my son's right, my right as an American, in the hope that somehow you'll make bad people stop doing bad things," Booth said.
The committee will hold a third day of discussions on gun-violence bills Thursday, meeting at 10 a.m. and again at 6 p.m. in Room 10 of the State Office Building.
No votes will be taken on bills this week.
Jim Ragsdale 651-925-5042