A bill would require a background check on anyone who buys a firearm at a gun show.
From Virginia to Arizona, federal and state gun laws are loosening everywhere from national parks to Amtrak trains.
But in St. Paul, a proposal that would send Minnesota in the opposite direction is headed toward its first hearing Friday -- a bill requiring background checks on the purchaser of any firearm sold at a gun show.
The proposal pits its DFL sponsor, St. Paul Rep. Michael Paymar, against the mighty arsenal of gun rights advocates and lobbyists who have managed to turn back nearly every effort to tighten Minnesota's gun laws in the past.
In a session dominated by pressing financial issues, it's unclear how much time and energy lawmakers have for an explosive gun control debate. The GOP already is saying no way. But just the attempt is arousing serious passions as all sides take aim at Friday's hearing.
"I'm not backing down," said Paymar, a veteran lawmaker who chairs the House public safety finance division. "I think there's an undue fear of the [National Rifle Association] here at the Legislature."
The protests from gun rights advocates have already begun rolling in. Alexa Fritts, a national spokeswoman for the NRA, has termed Paymar's plan "the first step toward ending gun shows in Minnesota" and will lobby against it. Rep. Paul Kohls, lead Republican on Paymar's committee, said Paymar's bill is "very, very unlikely" to be adopted.
Whatever the outcome, the nation's pro and anti-gun lobbies are using Paymar's proposal to make their points. Gun rights groups say the law makes no sense at a time when gun registrations have gone up in Minnesota, yet crime has gone down.
Serious crime decreased in Minnesota during four of the past five years, while permits by individuals to carry weapons in the state have risen by more than 6,000 in the past seven years.
Gun control advocates argue that Paymar's legislation would close a legal loophole in a state with gun laws that are among the weakest in the country. Recently, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gave Minnesota a score of 15 points out of a possible 100 in its analysis of state gun laws. That puts Minnesota below states like California and Massachusetts, but higher than neighboring Wisconsin, Iowa and North and South Dakota.
Gun love runs deep
There are many signs that Minnesotans love their guns. An estimated 350 people have been given permits to carry concealed firearms on the State Capitol grounds since the state's concealed carry law went into effect in 2003. Minnesotans have stepped up their gun and ammo purchases enough that the state's Fish and Game fund expects a $4 million revenue boost from the additional sales taxes.
At a recent gun show at St. Paul's National Guard armory, just down the street from the State Capitol, Paymar's legislation has made him a marked man. Herman Stark, who sold knives at the show and has also sold his own guns at a show, said he did not need to be told what political party Paymar belongs to.
"He's a Democrat. He's not a Republican. I know that -- just because he introduced it," said Stark, of Glencoe, who at 86 still exhibits his knives at 20 shows a year.
"I was in the service in World War II," Stark said. "I don't see why we have to be restricted now by some of these smart aleck" politicians.
The show was a red-white-and-blue homage to an American's right to bear arms. Men with rifles slung over their shoulder browsed tables crowded with firearms. One table was littered with bumper stickers aimed at liberals, including "Piss Off A Liberal -- Work Hard And Be Happy." A sign on the front door read, "You know the least you should do is belong to the NRA."
Jim Wright, a Vietnam veteran and the show's promoter, simply shook his head over Paymar's bill. "This show has been going on for over 25 years," he said. "How much crime has there been? Have we ever affected the Capitol? No-o-o-o-o."
But Paymar said the proposal addresses a significant loophole: While many gun show dealers have federal licenses, which require them to run background checks on purchasers, nothing requires someone who simply shows up at a gun show to sell a gun to do the same. Gun shows, according to one gun control group, are "Tupperware parties for criminals."
"It would be an easy thing for gun shows to do," said Paymar, who said that he has never been to a gun show. "You could have a felon, you could have someone who is convicted of a domestic assault ... buy an assault weapon" at a gun show.
"It's wrong," he said.
Heather Martens of Citizens for a Safer Minnesota, a lobbying group that helped Paymar draft the legislation, said she was stunned by what she saw at a gun show in Anoka last year. "I was offered, by one of these unlicensed sellers, an Uzi for cash without a background check," she said. "I was fairly shocked at the level of firepower that's available at these gun shows."
The push in Minnesota for tougher gun laws comes as President Obama has been criticized for signing legislation that allows firearms to be carried in national parks and on Amtrak trains -- moves that have surprised gun control advocates.
Wayne Hanson said that he would actually make more money if Paymar's legislation passed. As a licensed gun seller, he said, he charges $20 to have background checks done for sellers who are not licensed. If the background checks were now required on any gun show sale, Hanson said, more people would probably come to him.
Moving over to a collection of assault rifles he was selling, he said with a sarcastic smile: "These are the 'bad' things."
Joan Peterson, whose sister was shot to death by an estranged husband, said there is nothing to be smiling about. "There's a loophole," said Peterson, a spokesperson for Protect Minnesota, a group lobbying for Paymar's legislation and other stricter gun laws. "It doesn't have to be this way and shouldn't be."
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673