The Minnesota House passed two major gun control bills Thursday night, both priorities for state Democrats that still have no clear path to advancing out of the Republican-controlled Senate.
Democrats and gun control advocates have spent years pushing for a bill to expand criminal background checks to cover most private firearms transfers, as well as for a second bill enacting a “red flag” law to let courts temporarily remove guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others. The first bill passed the House 69-62, the second 68-62.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, described the bills as a response to an “urgent crisis” most recently marked by Wednesday’s deadly gun rampage at a Molson Coors plant in Milwaukee.
“We’ve almost become immune to these kinds of news stories,” Hortman said. “And we know that the laws that we proposed enacting here in Minnesota have been enacted in Republican-led states with Republican governors, Republican Houses, Republican Senates, and we know that they have saved lives in those states.”
Backers of the gun control bills rallied outside the House chamber before the vote and later read the names of gun violence victims. Inside the chamber, a throng of gun rights activists looked on from the gallery.
Both bills advanced out of the DFL-led House as part of a public safety package last session but were defeated on a party-line vote in subsequent budget negotiations. Passing the bills separately this year forces lawmakers to take direct votes that could be used by both sides in the fall campaigns.
“I think the voters spoke in 2018,” said Ruth Richardson, a Mendota Heights Democrat in her first term who sponsored the red flag bill. “If we’re not able to move these [bills] forward, I believe that voters are going to speak again.”
Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, countered that greater Minnesota constituents will show up to the polls “not in the way that [Democrats] think” in order to preserve Second Amendment rights.
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, the assistant majority leader, said Thursday night, “I’ve stated many times that due to a divided state government and without broad bipartisan support, extreme gun bills will not have a chance of becoming law. We will not take up bills just to satisfy a political agenda. However, we will be hearing bills that address the rising violent crime in our communities and close loopholes in criminal law in order to protect our citizens.”
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka promised gun rights activists last year that he would work to block background check and red flag legislation. Still, he said he was “committed to giving those bills and other gun bills a hearing in the Senate” if the House passed them separately.
As the House prepared to pass stand-alone gun control legislation, Senate Republicans appeared satisfied that the measures have already received their hearings: Both proposals were debated alongside a package of GOP gun bills at a legislative hearing in Hibbing in January. Democrats blasted the meeting as a “political show hearing.”
Senate Republicans also have countered this session with gun legislation of their own, including a proposal to toughen penalties for “straw” purchases made on behalf of third-parties and increased enforcement of laws meant to deny guns to people convicted of domestic violence.
Although background check or red flag legislation has not become law, rural county governments around the state are increasingly declaring themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuary” jurisdictions in anticipation of new gun restrictions.
Five counties — Clearwater, Marshall, Red Lake, Roseau and Wadena — have so far vowed to not use county funds to enforce laws that they believe restrict citizens’ constitutional rights to keep and bear arms.
The Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus has shared proposed draft resolutions with Minnesota counties, and the New House Republican Caucus has sent letters to each county calling for them to adopt Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions. Activists from about 30 counties have since organized Facebook groups to urge their counties to adopt such resolutions.
“Unfortunately, when you get into the position where states start passing these gun control bills into laws, then this is ending up being a reaction; we want to prepare the state,” said Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg. “ … If we have many of the counties filling in throughout the state of Minnesota, saying that’s not going to happen here, that should be a clear message to the governor and anyone else that wishes to control people’s gun rights.”