Minnesota’s gun debate reached its highest stage yet Wednesday night at the State Capitol, where young students and mothers who vaulted the issue atop state Democrats’ agenda shared a packed room with activists who vigorously oppose any new gun restrictions.
Two gun control measures key to the new Democratic House majority’s legislative platform moved closer to passage in the House after hours of impassioned testimony at a committee hearing.
“This is about human lives,” said Bob Mokos, a Burnsville resident and gun owner whose sister was shot to death in the 1980s. “I, for one, am weary about the children in this country being the price we pay for the Second Amendment.”
The two measures up for debate would broaden criminal background checks to include gun sales between private individuals and add a law allowing relatives or law enforcement to petition a judge to take away firearms from those deemed a danger to themselves or others.
In a late-night vote, the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee moved the background check bill along party lines in a 9-7 vote and was poised to advance the “red flag” bill when the committee reconvenes Thursday.
Several hundred people mobbed the entrance of the conference room before Wednesday’s ticketed hearing and also filled a nearby overflow room. Speaking in favor of the bills were law enforcement leaders like Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, local students and those whose loved ones were slain by gunfire also spoke out.
Sa’Lesha Beeks, whose mother was killed in front of her granddaughter by a stray bullet in north Minneapolis in 2016, tearfully described how her mother’s shooter, a young gang member, had been previously arrested in possession of an illegal firearm. “She was killed by somebody that she would have helped,” Beeks said. “Minnesota failed my mother, but you have the ability to protect Minnesotans from this day on.”
Those on both sides of the issue kept a polite tone Wednesday, agreeing that gun violence reduction is a worthy cause but vastly differing over whether the new laws were the answer. Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said the measures would overburden law-abiding gun owners while failing to address “the true nature of gun crime.”
“A background check isn’t going to slow somebody down who is intent on committing a crime,” Nash said. “They’re not going to follow the letter of the law because they are already choosing to break the law.”
State lawmakers backing the bills have credited young activists who have rallied for new laws since the February 2018 Parkland, Fla., high school shooting and cite the issue as a leading factor in Democrats regaining control in the state House after flipping multiple suburban seats. Minnesota’s debate over new gun laws mirrors an ongoing national discussion, and Wednesday’s hearing came just hours after the U.S. House, also in Democratic control, passed its first major gun control bill in nearly 25 years.
But the power dynamic in both Congress and the Minnesota Legislature still poses the greatest challenge to new gun laws becoming reality.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, has remained steadfast in his opposition to the legislation and in his commitment to gun rights advocates that he would stand in the way of the measures. Speaking at a rally Saturday, Gazelka said universal background checks “ain’t gonna happen” and the “crazy ‘red flag’ laws” would not pick up steam in the Senate.
Yet House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, insisted that the bills would have the votes in the Senate if Gazelka brought the measures to a floor vote.
“The question is whether they have the courage to have the Senate actually vote on them,” Winkler said.
The bill’s foes described them as too broad and lacking due process. Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake , suggested the state’s existing laws — like 72-hour holds in mental health crises and domestic violence statutes — are enough to curb gun deaths.
“If someone is truly a danger to themselves or others then they should be removed from all of the things in the home that they may hurt themselves with or hurt someone else with,” O’Neill said. “It’s more than just the firearms; it could be the knives, it could be the rope.”
But Rep. Ruth Richardson, D-Mendota Heights, the “red flag” law’s chief sponsor, said it would be a needed tool in a state facing a mental health crisis with shortages in personnel and bed space for emergency holds.
Initial plans called for Wednesday’s hearing to be held at an Edina middle school before that school, and later Hopkins High School, were flooded with calls from gun rights activists outraged over the choice of setting and their inability to openly carry firearms at the locations. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said the original setting was intended recognize the student activists who fueled the movement behind the latest push to change the state’s gun laws.
“This is really their legislation; this is really their political moment that they created,” Hortman said.