Gun-control advocates in the Minnesota House on Tuesday abandoned efforts to require background checks for virtually all gun purchases, part of a compromise they hope will expand background screening to sales at gun shows.

Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, chief sponsor of the universal background checks bill, reached an agreement with Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, whose opposition had threatened to scuttle the plan in Paymar's own committee.

They finished the deal in private meetings while a packed committee room waited for them to take up the issue on Tuesday night. Instead, Paymar gaveled the House Public Safety Committee meeting closed after less than a minute, leaving the crowd confused, and said he would return later this week with a new bill.

"We've reached an agreement," Paymar said after the non-meeting. "I think we both have compromised a lot. We have abandoned the universal background checks that I absolutely wanted in this bill." But he added, "We have an agreement that the gun-show loophole will be plugged."

Originally, Paymar sought to extend background checks to cover all private sales of handguns and semi-automatic, military-style assault weapons, whether at gun shows, on the Internet or over the back yard fence. While a stronger bill remains alive in the Senate, the Tuesday night decision essentially means the House will go no further than gun-show checks — if it goes that far.

Expanded checks have become an issue of national importance. Last week, Vice President Joe Biden called state Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk on Bakk's cellphone to see how the background checks debate was faring.

Tuesday's deal was a victory for the National Rifle Association, which opposed universal checks and brought its lobbying might to bear to defeat it. The chief gun-rights supporter on the committee, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said on Tuesday night that even gun-show checks remain unacceptable.

"Unfortunately we weren't able to cut the head off the snake, and now it's going to slither its way onto the floor of the House, where we will have to kill it there," he said.

Heather Martens, head of the gun-control group Protect Minnesota, was disappointed with the change but pleased that efforts to increase controls will remain alive. "This is not what we wanted ... as the finished product, but it's a step in the right direction," she said.

In addition to losing background checks on all private sales, Paymar gave up provisions sought by police that would have given local officials broader authority to deny applications for gun permits.

"That's all gone — everything is gone except the gun-show language," Paymar said.

Currently, federal and state background checks apply to all sales made through licensed dealers, but not to private sales. The original House bill — and the Senate version that remains alive — would extend checks to all private sales of handguns and semi-automatic, military-style assault weapons, with sales among relatives exempted. Police groups supported the change, saying an unknown percentage of gun sales, perhaps 40 percent, go through unchecked sales.

Paymar and Hilstrom said they will agree on a substitute bill in the coming days. In addition to the gun-show checks, they said, it will likely include some elements of Hilstrom's competing bill, which focused on improving current background checks and preventing gun purchases by intermediaries. Hilstrom said she can support the provisions of the compromise, and Paymar said it will be able to pass committee tests and get to the House floor.

Holding out hope

Paymar said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, encouraged the two of them to keep working to come up with a compromise. Earlier in the day, Thissen said while he personally would have supported universal background checks, it is a divisive issue within the DFL majority caucus. "That's why we're working to find common ground, that recognizes there is an issue with illegal guns coming into certain communities," Thissen said. "At the same time, there's a tradition and a constitutional amendment ... that protects that tradition around responsible gun ownership. It's a tough one."

Supporters of universal background checks held out some hope that the stronger Senate version — which applies checks to all private sales — could prevail once the two houses have to agree on common language. But Tuesday's backroom agreement appears to limit the House to gun-show language only.

And Paymar admitted that even that language will be difficult to pass in the full House.

"I have to thank the speaker for saying he really wanted a resolution to this," Paymar said. He said the new version was not satisfactory but represented a necessary compromise. "I've lost my bill now ... what I have fought for since this session started. I am relinquishing that but getting the gun-show loophole."

The divisions in the state over gun violence had loomed large among DFLers throughout the day as they struggled to craft a compromise on one of the toughest issues of the session. Paymar has fought the gun-control battle for years without success but felt there was a "sea change" among his colleagues after the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14.

But all GOP members of the committee opposed his bill, and key DFLers objected as well.

Hilstrom noted that she represents a district with mixed views on gun issues and said that the former state senator from her district, the late DFLer Linda Scheid, was a longtime sponsor of the permit-to-carry law.

Another member of the committee, Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, an assistant majority leader in the House, opposed the bill on Second Amendment grounds. An NRA-endorsed legislator, he said his constituents tend to back his position.

Angel Cradle and Julia Freeman, who lost relatives in shootings, testified in favor of the Paymar measure, saying it would help keep guns out of the wrong hands. "I believe this bill will keep these guns off the street," Freeman said.

But Beverly Moreland of Cottage Grove denounced the bill and the committee members. "All you guys took an oath of office to defend and support the Constitution," she said. "By even discussing this you are going against your oath. ... You shouldn't be in office if you can't keep your oath."

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042-