Minnesota could be on the verge of breakthrough changes in some of its gun laws, as a bipartisan group of lawmakers heads toward passing a bill to end firearm ownership for convicted stalkers and domestic abusers.
Until now, no restriction on gun ownership has been too small to draw the fierce opposition of gun rights groups and their supporters. Just a year ago, a proposal for broader background checks for firearms purchases was crushed at the Capitol despite attempts to weaken the bill enough to get it approved.
This time, a rank-and-file police officer — who also happens to be a DFL House member from St. Paul Park — is leading the effort to take all firearms, including rifles, away from those who stalk or abuse their partners. His careful legislative campaign is winning surprising support.
Rep. Dan Schoen said he well knows how contentious gun bills can be at the Capitol. "I have tried to have the conversation in a nonexplosive manner," Schoen said. "So far, we've been able to do it. And I think it is a significant step."
He has a powerful partner — Republican Rep. Tony Cornish, a retired police officer and the Legislature's most outspoken advocate of gun rights. He regularly carries a handgun into the Capitol.
Cornish, of Vernon Center, said the fact that Schoen is a street cop is the only reason he agreed to help sponsor the bill. Had the bill been drafted by urban police chiefs or "gun-haters, I probably wouldn't have even been in the room," said Cornish, who was wearing a red tie sporting the National Rifle Association logo.
The bill, which has run a gantlet of House committees, faces its most serious test Monday, when the full House is scheduled to vote on final passage.
The proposal would put Minnesota at the leading edge of a larger national movement that, after meeting with defeat on more ambitious proposals, is aiming at narrow niche victories in areas with broad public support, such as preventing domestic homicides.
"It's not about gun ownership, it is about protecting the lives of victims of abuse," said Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, in Washington, D.C. "I believe it will mean fewer murders."
The bipartisan nature of the measure has drawn the attention of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, a devoted gun owner who has been leery of tightening Minnesotans' right to own firearms.
The governor says he's reserving judgment on the measure until he sees its final wording.
But Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said the governor "is impressed by the fact that the bill has thus far garnered broad, bipartisan support."
Minnesota already prevents convicted domestic abusers from owning handguns. The bill would broaden those restrictions to include rifles and any other firearms. It also would prohibit anyone subject to a temporary protective order from having a firearm. The measure would allow those weapons to be turned over to a friend or relative while the order is in effect.
Getting guns out of the house
"It's not perfect, but it's getting there," said Rob Doar, a lobbyist for the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, which has dropped its objection to Schoen's bill. "We agree with making sure the guns get out of the house," so long as there is ample due process.
Studies show that half of all domestic abuse homicides in Minnesota over the past three years involved a firearm.
"I absolutely believe without a doubt that lives will be saved by this," said St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing, whose office handles about 1,000 domestic violence cases a year. "What we see is that the presence of guns perpetuates that cycle of power and control. Now these women will be able to get out of these relationships with less fear, when there isn't a gun in the home."
Law enforcement organizations have documented a sharp rise in domestic abuse-related homicides. Between 2012 and 2013, the rate of such homicides doubled, with 38 people killed.
"The gun culture of this country is so disturbing," said Marree Seitz, whose daughter Carolyn was shot and killed by her husband several days after filing for divorce in 1996. "So much of the domestic abuse is so flammable, where the littlest thing can set the person off," she said. "The accessibility of the weapons makes it such a natural thing."
Legislators were still working on the proposal late in the week, ensuring that gun advocates could approve the changes.
The measure puts opponents in the difficult and politically dicey position of defending gun ownership rights for domestic abusers and stalkers.
State Rep. David Dill, who opposed last year's measure on background checks, said he is not quite ready to commit to supporting the new measure. He wants to make sure there is ample due process for people subject to restraining orders.
"Domestic abuse is a horrible thing, an awful thing," said Dill, DFL-Crane Lake. "But I want to make sure there is as much due process and protection in it possible for legal, law-abiding gun owners."
The measure has strong support from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the country's largest gun violence prevention advocacy organization. The group was founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has poured millions of dollars of his personal fortune into the cause. Just this month, Bloomberg pledged an additional $50 million to try to match the NRA's formidable membership base, lobbying force and campaign organization.
"You've got to work at it piece by piece," Bloomberg told the New York Times.
State Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, said the gun issue has a different feel inside the Capitol this year. He led last year's unsuccessful effort on background checks and harshly criticized leaders in his own party for letting it die.
"Clearly, we ran into a buzz saw last year," said Paymar, who runs a nonprofit organization aimed at reducing domestic abuse. "The environment was toxic at the time."
Schoen said he is taking nothing for granted. He knows that gun owner groups can quickly and easily turn up the heat on members and defeat the bill.
"It's maybe a signal of the temperature of the room, how far can you go at once," Schoen said. "I am just trying to read the tea leaves."
Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044