When Minnesota lawmakers enter the House and Senate chambers Tuesday to start the legislative session, gun-control activists plan to be there, quietly handing out pieces of paper with a pointed greeting.
“Welcome back,” the flier from Moms Demand Action states. “Will you vote for common sense gun safety this year?”
The Florida school shooting that killed 17 students and teachers last week has galvanized gun-control groups, who are urging Minnesota legislators to bolster background checks and gun violence prevention. Second Amendment advocates, meanwhile, want lawmakers to reconsider gun-rights bills that fell by the wayside last year.
But with an abbreviated legislative session and the Republican-dominated Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton at odds over gun policy, legislators and advocates said the enthusiasm might not translate to much action this year.
“We have a very short session, so I’m not going to waste time on bills that are not eventually going to become a success,” said Sen. Warren Limmer, Republican chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, referring to two bills that GOP lawmakers proposed last year.
One, the “stand your ground” bill, would expand Minnesotans’ rights to use deadly force to defend themselves or their home. Another, called constitutional carry — or permitless carry by opponents — would allow legal gun owners to carry their guns in a public place without a permit. Dayton previously vetoed a stand your ground bill.
“If he doesn’t support stand your ground, I know he’s not going to support constitutional carry,” Limmer, of Maple Grove, said. “I don’t think it’s ready for Minnesota right now.”
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he has not seen a groundswell of support for those issues this session, though he is willing to have a conversation about them.
“It would surprise me if the majority felt there was some political advantage to making it easier to own or use guns,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the ranking minority member on the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.
Latz is hoping for momentum around a measure he has pushed that would require all gun purchases to be subject to background checks. Checks are currently mandatory for someone buying a gun from a licensed firearm dealer, but the bill would extend the requirement to private transactions and online sales.
Latz said there seems to be broad support for so-called “universal background checks” in Minnesota, noting a Star Tribune 2016 poll where the majority of respondents supported tougher checks. Latz also plans to introduce a bill to allow people to self-declare that they cannot safely possess their own firearms and turn them in.
Gun-control advocates will support such bills and push for additional legislation at a rally Thursday at the Capitol. The Rev. Nancy Nord Bence, executive director of Protect Minnesota, which is organizing the rally, said she would like to see legislation allowing the state’s Department of Health to collect gun-related data and to designate $100,000 for gun trauma treatment.
Erin Zamoff, Minnesota chapter leader of Moms Demand Action, wants lawmakers to join the few states that allow a court to temporarily seize someone’s guns if they are a danger to themselves or others.
“Our volunteers are feeling this very deeply,” Zamoff said of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. “We want them to take action this year, and we’re tired of waiting, frankly.”
Republican legislators noted other avenues to address gun violence. Gazelka said he is interested in improving security at schools.
“I’ve very sympathetic to why people are pointing the finger, trying to find a solution,” Gazelka said. “But where I want to point the finger is: Let’s deal with the fact that people are violent, how do we stop them from harming or killing our kids?”
Limmer said if there are going to be discussions of gun sale regulations this year, they should focus on people who have a “propensity for violence.” However, he added, that would raise complicated privacy issues related to use of mental health medical records.
“We always get a raft of legislation after every gun incident, no matter where it is in the country,” Limmer said. But when he looks at proposed legislation he considers, “Would that have stopped the crime you are reacting to?”
The Parkland school shooter had legally purchased guns at a store, and the background check legislation Latz and others support would not have prevented him from doing so, he said.
Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, is taking over as chairman of the House Public Safety and Security Committee. He’s succeeding Tony Cornish, who resigned at the beginning of the year. Both men come from law enforcement backgrounds, and Johnson said they have similar views on gun regulations.
“I don’t want to push anything forward that would violate the Second Amendment,” Johnson said. As for gun violence prevention, “We have pretty good laws in place to deal with that,” he said.