Legislature has a chance to build a foundation for safety.
After several days of emotional testimony that drew hundreds to the Capitol last week, a legislative committee is proposing a reasonable law to tighten background checks on those who purchase firearms.
The Gun Violence Prevention Act was introduced by Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee. The bill focuses on three areas: universal background checks for buyers of pistols or semiautomatic weapons (with exemptions for sales to relatives); penalties on straw sales to disqualified people, and additional tools for prosecutors to go after gun crimes and people who should not possess firearms.
Existing laws waive background checks for those who make private purchases at gun shows, flea markets and online. The new measure would close those glaring loopholes and require that nearly everyone who wants to buy a firearm would be subject to a thorough background check and waiting period. It’s simply a common-sense effort to ensure that no one who is ineligible to have firearms can buy them.
The proposal also calls for stronger penalties for those who purchase guns to intentionally sell them to criminals or others who are legally ineligible to have them.
Paymar and his committee deliberately left out the most controversial gun-control proposals, including assault-weapons bans and limits on the size of magazines.
Although there is value in those limits, many legislators and their constituents objected. That opposition came through loud and clear during several days of hearings this month before House and Senate committees.
Paymar’s committee wisely decided to draft a bill that has a reasonable chance of being approved this year.
“We’ve compiled what we think is a good bill that we think can pass out of committee and pass the Legislature and get the governor to sign it,” he said.
There is still a possibility that Congress will move on proposed federal limits on assault weapons and ammunition, although the gun-control momentum that followed the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., seems to be slowing.
There is simply no need for average citizens to own weapons that can fire so many rounds so quickly. Several of the most recent mass shootings, including the tragic deaths of children in Newtown, took so many lives in just minutes because an automatic weapon was involved.
Another area the proposed Minnesota legislation fails to address is strengthening the information systems and data that helps determine eligibility for gun purchases and permits. Recent Star Tribune news stories documented just how ineffective current record-keeping and information-sharing can be.
The most frightening story detailed how 32-year-old Christian Philip Oberender of Delano bought 13 guns despite having been deemed criminally insane for murdering his mother in 1995.
In addition to the guns, on Jan. 2 police found notes from Oberender that referred to the Newtown murders and said he thinks “about killing all the time.” A Carver County sheriff who investigated the 1995 case flagged the name.
The story reported that Oberender’s is just one of many cases in Minnesota that have exposed dangerous deficiencies in the state’s system for checking criminal and mental-health histories. Steps should be taken to strengthen the system.
For now, even the modest House plan that is on the table will likely face opposition. Gun advocates called universal background checks a “nonstarter,” and some Senate leaders have said it won’t pass.
But it should. As most law enforcement leaders point out, too many firearms are changing hands every day without any information about the buyers. Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, called background checks “the centerpiece of all the firearms legislation.”
He’s right, and Minnesota lawmakers should lend their support to Paymar’s legislation.