Members of Minnesota's law enforcement establishment adamantly don't want the state's residents to be allowed to shoot first.

They ramped up their opposition on Thursday to a bill moving through the Legislature that would dramatically expand Minnesotans' ability to use deadly force in self-defense without facing prosecution.

Flanked by police chiefs, prosecutors and DFL legislators, Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, said the bill "will increase danger to the public and increase danger to the police."

Harrington, a former St. Paul police chief, also called the bill "a broadly misguided piece of legislation that should be pulled."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, said he "was totally aggravated to see those chiefs stand up there to violate people's rights. They're just scaring the public."

When he was a beat officer "chasing bad guys," Harrington said, "I didn't have to look over my shoulder to find out whether the homeowner had me in their sights, too."

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said the measure is "chasing a problem that doesn't exist" and that Minnesota's existing laws governing self-defense adequately protect law-abiding citizens. "This will create problems."

"This law will, in essence, allow a person to shoot first and ask questions later whenever they believe they are exposed to substantial harm, regardless of how a reasonable person would have acted under the circumstances," said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom.

He said it would "encourage the use of deadly force as a first response to danger. Taking a human life should be the last resort."

"Public safety and criminal justice bills ought to enhance safety, and this one does not," Freeman said.

The opponents repeated their contention that the bill will put police officers at an increased risk of being shot.

Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan, noting that he has been shot at during his career, said officers on the street already work in "a very dangerous place. ... This is just going to make it even more dangerous."

"Lessening the expectation on when to shoot somebody is not good for public safety," Dolan said.

'Hysteria and fear-mongering?'

St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith said he believes the bill "is way too ambiguous" and mentioned two scenarios that opponents have repeatedly raised.

"We chase a suspect through [a] back yard," he said. "If you wake up, I'm just using common sense in the middle of the night and you're startled by some noises in the back of your yard, does that mean now you can pull out your firearm and possibly engage with a police officer?"

Or, he said, in the case of a dispute "with a neighbor, or someone who's upset, or someone who comes to a fence line or the side of your yard ... and says 'I'm going to punch you out.' Does that mean you can go in your house or if you have your weapon on you because you can carry a weapon in your yard, that you can shoot that person?"

Cornish said the chiefs "may be united, but they're wrong."

He said the state's law enforcement organizations also unanimously opposed the law allowing Minnesotans to carry concealed weapons.

"They're predicting the same plagues and pestilence, talking about blood in the streets -- which never happened," he said. "They're back with the same horror stories, which won't happen."

Supporters, led by Cornish, call it the "Stand Your Ground" law, while opponents refer to it as a "Shoot First" law.

Andrew Rothman of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance called the "Shoot First" label "ridiculous hyperbole" and said opponents are engaging in "hysteria and fear-mongering." Changes in the bill have already addressed many of the law enforcement concerns, he said.

The bill has been approved by committees in the House and Senate and appears likely to be approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Cornish said a House vote is expected next week.

Long a priority of gun rights advocates, it had been blocked in recent years by DFL majorities in the Legislature. Gov. Mark Dayton has said he opposes it. He has said he shares the concerns of law enforcement organizations.

"The governor will have to decide if he's on the side of criminals or of law-abiding citizens," Rothman said.

Opponents said there have been no cases of a person being charged when they were defending themselves under current law in Minnesota.

Rothman, however, said the killer of a Minneapolis police officer in 1986 was convicted of assault and had to appeal the verdict to the state Supreme Court, which overturned it.

Bob von Sternberg • 651-222-0973