The fatal shooting at a Buffalo, Minn., health clinic has reignited debate at the State Capitol over gun restrictions.
Some Democratic legislators and gun control advocates renewed their longstanding push for background check and red-flag laws after Tuesday's attack that killed one person and injured four others. The man arrested in the shooting had a history of violent threats and was well known to law enforcement. But gun control advocates said mass shootings, even one that hits close to home, are unlikely to change the dynamic in the Legislature, where the Senate's Republican majority has opposed those measures.
"Anytime there's another shooting it highlights the importance of getting guns out of the hands of people that are a danger to themselves or others," said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who has pushed for several gun control measures. He said Senate Democrats will request a hearing on the bills again this year, "But I expect we'll be stonewalled like we have in the past."
Both GOP and DFL lawmakers said Wednesday that they need more detail about the shooting at the Allina Clinic and the suspect's possession of firearms to determine whether proposed gun restrictions could have affected the situation.
The suspect, Gregory Paul Ulrich, was barred from the clinic after repeatedly calling his former doctor and threatening a mass shooting or bombing. He was charged with violating that restraining order in 2018, but a judge dismissed the charge because Ulrich was found mentally incompetent to proceed with the case. In 2019, a court official noted Ulrich was attempting to apply for his permit to purchase a firearm but had not yet been approved. The court official "highly recommended" that he not be allowed to have any dangerous weapons or firearms. It's unclear how he got the gun.
Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, has sponsored measures in the past to improve compliance with existing gun laws. A bill he carried last session would require the courts to hold a compliance hearing within 10 business days of issuing a protective order in abuse and stalking cases, to make sure all firearms have been removed from the individual's possession. Pratt said there is no mechanism in law to ensure that actually happens, and oftentimes it doesn't.
He said if the Ulrich case shows there was a lack of follow-up, he would consider pursuing the issue again.
Rep. Marion O'Neill, R-Maple Lake, represents the community where the shooting took place. She said because so much remains unclear about Ulrich's situation and his possession of guns, she wouldn't comment on firearm proposals, but said the state needs to provide more funding for emergency mental health services.
Rob Doar, political director for the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, also said legislators should focus on connecting people with mental illness with services. Doar said even if Ulrich was blocked from having guns, he could have injured people with a bomb. Explosive experts investigated a suspicious package and devices Tuesday at the clinic and hotel where Ulrich had reportedly stayed.
"Even in a perfect world, had all of the court orders been filled, had he had a red flag law, had he even turned in all his guns, he still would have been able to inflict a large amount of harm through other means because we were focused on the singular tool rather than the individual in crisis," Doar said.
The debate over gun regulations has been at the forefront of recent legislative sessions, but this year it has been less of a focus as state leaders are trying to combat COVID-19.
Jessica DeWeerth with the Minnesota chapter of Moms Demand Action said the urgency has not changed for the organization. She noted that mental health issues have increased during the pandemic.
The chapter is pressing for the red flag law, which would allow courts to temporarily remove people's guns if they're found to be a threat to themselves or others. They are also advocating for a background check measure that Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, has carried for several sessions.
In Minnesota, gun purchases from licensed dealers already require background checks, but there's no requirement for a similar check when private firearms transfers occur. The bill would extend the criminal background check requirement to those transfers, except in the case of immediate family members. Private parties would also be required to fill out a transferee permit application form and keep that record for 20 years.
Pinto noted that if the suspect got his gun through a private transaction, the seller would not have been required to check if he was supposed to have it. Law enforcement groups have supported background check bills in the past, but gun groups say it would penalize law-abiding gun owners while doing little to stop violent crime.
Neither the red flag measure nor the background check bill has been scheduled for hearings in the DFL-controlled House as of Wednesday.
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042