A shooting rampage in Minneapolis, a woman's obsession with an ex-boyfriend that ended in murder and the limits of controlling human passions provided grim subject matter as the Legislature began debating gun violence on Tuesday.

"My father lived the American dream, but he died the American nightmare," said Sami Rahamim, son of Accent Signage owner Reuven Rahamim, who died in a mass shooting at the Minneapolis firm in September. He joined supporters of a bill that would expand background checks to ensure that guns do not fall into the wrong hands.

The 17-year-old Rahamim's emotional testimony was the kickoff to three days of hearings in the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, where gun-control activists and far more numerous gun-rights supporters packed rooms to overflowing, with supporters wearing buttons stating "Self Defense is a Human Right."

The committee heard how Rochelle Inselman, of Brooklyn Center, stalked her former boyfriend for years, was denied a permit to purchase a weapon but then purchased one legally through a private sale where background checks were not required. She killed the ex-boyfriend.

Rep. Tony Cornish, sporting an assault-weapon lapel pin and flaming red National Rifle Association tie, told the committee that Inselman was proof of government's limits. "You're not going to stop some of these people from committing murder," said the Vernon Center Republican, arguing for arming teachers in schools and vowing to "blow holes" in each and every bill presented.

Gun violence 'a fact of life'

Prompted by the Accent Signage shootings and the Connecticut school massacre, the hearing came a day after President Obama appeared in Minnesota to pitch his call for universal background checks and other restrictions.

The committee heard testimony into the evening -- from relatives of gun-violence victims and from supporters of gun rights.

"Keep your hands off our guns," was the message of Bill Tigner. The mechanical engineer from Apple Valley said he sees no way to curtail gun violence. "It's just a fact of life," he said, adding that citizens need military-style weaponry. "Unless citizens are effectively armed, tyranny will occur," Tigner said.

Roger Parras of St. Peter said the legislators were surrounded by "hundreds" of gun-carrying activists during the day, but all was peaceful.

But Joan Peterson, whose sister was shot to death by her estranged husband, and Diane Sellgren, whose daughter struggled with depression and committed suicide, asked for laws that would address gun violence. After the Connecticut shootings, Peterson said, people want action. "Everything has changed," she said.

Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, the committee's chairman, offered the first of several bills that could become part of an anti-violence package. Paymar's bill calls for universal background checks similar to those proposed by Obama. Minnesota's background checks cover purchases of pistols and assault weapons from licensed dealers, but not private sales at gun shows, on the Internet or among private parties.

Paymar's bill drew support from the law enforcement officials. These unchecked sales represent a "gaping hole" in the system of making sure guns don't fall into the wrong hands, said Dennis Flaherty of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. "We're not doing enough to protect citizens of our state from gun violence," Flaherty told the committee. He said up to 40 percent of handgun sales go through these loopholes.

Brooklyn Center Police Chief Kevin Benner cited Inselman as an example of a person who found a way to obtain a gun legally, through a sale that did not require a background check.

The politically potent NRA and a statewide gun-rights organization, the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, opposed extending background checks. They said they feared that requiring universal checks would create a statewide gun-registration system.

"There is no private sales loophole," said Chris Rager of the NRA. "There is no such thing as a gun show loophole."

Evaluating mentally ill

A second bill, sponsored by Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, drew criticism both from gun-rights groups and from mental health advocates. Schoen's bill would allow local law enforcement to request an evaluation or a doctor's letter if an applicant for a gun permit is known to have severe mental health problems.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, while emphasizing his support of Second Amendment rights, said authorities need ways to keep weapons from people with severe mental illness. He said the federal background check database is woefully inadequate because states have not contributed data on convictions and mental commitments.

Stanek said eight of the nine mass shootings in the nation last year, including the one at Accent Signage, were committed by men with a history of mental illness -- often untreated.

"This has become a public health issue as well as a public safety issue," Stanek said, calling for greater access to mental health records "when appropriate."

Sue Abderholden, head of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Minnesota, said better treatment programs are needed. "Targeting people who live with serious mental illnesses is unlikely to have a significant impact on reducing gun violence," she said. "The vast majority of people living with mental illnesses are not violent."

The committee plans to hear bills through Thursday and return in several weeks to decide which measures could pass.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042