Issue of gun background checks divides Minnesota Legislature

Minnesota Democrats are split on whether to seek universal background checks. A counterproposal is being called too weak.

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A bipartisan group of lawmakers and members of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association introduced an alternative gun bill Wednesday.

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A bipartisan majority of Minnesota House members and gun-rights groups are lining up to back a new proposal at the State Capitol that would tighten penalties on Minnesotans who obtain weapons illegally and would prohibit felons from owning ammunition.

The proposed plan, the latest to emerge amid intense debate at the Legislature over gun control, does not include the universal background check on private sales favored by some, but advocates of the new measure say it may be the only thing that can pass.

“This bill was put together with intent of seeing what we could do with the current system we have, to make that better,” said Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Park.

But the proposal also is laying bare the divide within the DFL on gun rights, and could signal the first serious dissension within a party that now controls the Legislature. Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, who heads the House Public Safety and Finance Committee, has already proposed a bill featuring universal background checks — an element that gun safety activists say is key step toward restricting gun violence.

On Wednesday Gov. Mark Dayton called universal background checks “common sense” and said he would be concerned and disappointed if the Legislature moved forward without passing them. A Star Tribune poll this week found that the 70 percent of Minnesotans — including 60 percent of gun owners — support such a system of universal background checks. But legislative leaders have expressed doubt that Paymar can round up the needed votes in a Legislature notoriously reluctant to tangle with any perceived restrictions on Second Amendment rights.

“There are a number of rural members who have really no appetite to deal with that background check issue,” Senate Majority Leader Bakk, DFL-Cook, said recently.

The dustup over the slimmed-down measure, which one leading Democrat said was crafted to protect suburban Republicans and rural Democrats, highlights the emotional and politically charged debate over gun safety legislation. Already, hundreds of Minnesotans have stuffed committee rooms to loudly protest lawmakers’ efforts to rein in gun rights as victims of gun violence pleaded with lawmakers to act to prevent more killings.

The issue has DFL legislative leaders struggling with how to placate gun-owning rural colleagues while satisfying members who say that in the wake of high-profile mass shootings, the time to act is at hand.

Already lawmakers who had looked at banning specific weapons and ammunition have dropped those plans in the face of a massive outcry from gun rights activists. But leading lawmakers say the new proposal to leave out universal background checks bends too far.

“It seems to me they’re playing political games with this, not being serious about trying to advance good public policy,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. He said the measure “leaves a huge gap in public safety. It doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.”

But Hilstrom, who proposed the new bill, says she is trying to craft legislation that has the political will behind it to become law. She is bolstered by backing from dozens of Republican lawmakers and the National Rifle Association, lawmakers said.

“We believe that this is a proposal that can bring people together in Minnesota,” said Hilstrom, who said she has never been endorsed by the NRA. Hilstrom leads the House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee.

But Paymar said he is disappointed in Hilstrom.

“Here’s the chair of the Judiciary Committee offering a bill that was written by the NRA,” said Paymar, who has taken the lead on gun safety legislation in the House and conducted days of packed, tension-filled hearings before arriving at his own proposal.

Hilstrom said although she consulted with the NRA, as well as many others, she rejected the accusation that any interest group was solely responsible. ‘This was a product of many, many people working and talking about the issues,” she said.

Paymar says he is unsure whether his committee will have the time to give Hilstrom’s bill a hearing.

Latz, who is Paymar’s equal in the Senate, said the NRA purposely popped the bill late.

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