Gun control activists and DFL legislators are expressing a newfound optimism that Democratic electoral gains in the suburbs will apply enough pressure on Republicans in those districts to pass a pair of proposed gun restrictions this year.
“Minnesotans have been very loud and clear on asking for this,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said Monday, a week after Democrats included a pair of gun measures among their first 10 initiatives introduced at the start of session.
The bills are part of an ongoing effort led by DFL lawmakers to expand criminal background checks for all gun sales — closing a “loophole” where buyers can obtain firearms through private sales without a check. A second House proposal would enact a “red flag” law that would allow law enforcement or relatives to petition to take guns away from someone suspected of posing a threat to themselves or others. Similar measures are being prepared in the Senate.
In announcing the new House proposals, Hortman singled out Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, as one of several Republican state senators up for re-election in 2020 in suburban districts where one or more Democratic challengers unseated a Republican.
But some Republicans and gun rights advocates remain skeptical as to how much gun issues motivated voters during the 2018 midterms, saying that President Donald Trump’s unpopularity and other issues like immigration and health care were more decisive. Activists also point out that several incumbent Republican lawmakers who either signed onto or entertained backing gun control bills still lost their re-election bids in 2018.
Still, Limmer, from whose committee any new Senate bills on gun regulation would need to pass, acknowledged in a recent statement that “gun safety will continue to be a topic of discussion at the Capitol next session.”
“Last year, those conversations led to a significant investment in school safety that I’m very proud of, and I think there will be interest in doing more for schools this year,” Limmer said. “With divided government, any new solutions will need to have wide bipartisan support to be seriously considered.”
On the other side of the debate, the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus is keeping up its active role lobbying at the Capitol, designating Jan. 24 as a “lobbying day” for supporters to come visit their respective lawmakers and the governor. A rally at the Capitol will follow next month.
Rob Doar, the group’s political director, said he saw little room for compromise in the first two measures introduced in the House. Doar especially opposed raising the gun purchasing age from 18 to 21 and a new requirement that would require prospective buyers to apply for a permit for each firearm they wanted to purchase.
“I think people are generally opposed to just the notion that background checks have any sort of impact on crime because criminals are already circumventing the current background check process,” Doar said.
Louis Dennard, president of the African American Heritage Gun Club, a roughly 40-member group he founded last year, called the new proposals “feel-good legislation” that won’t work.
“You can take away the gun but evil will always find a way,” Dennard said. “Truly, it’s just the definition of criminal is they don’t obey the law.”
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, has said existing laws were better suited to stem gun violence in mental health or domestic violence situations but said Republicans would “listen to all voices interested in this issue, both gun control advocates and responsible gun owners.”
“We’re open to new ideas as long as they can get bipartisan support,” Gazelka said in a statement on Monday. “What we’re not interested in is political agendas that sound good, but are duplicative of current laws or won’t solve any problems.”
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, underscored the difficulty of the issue by noting that Democrats could not pass gun legislation when they had a 39-person majority in the Senate in 2013 and 2014. Bakk, among a handful of Democrats previously resistant to new gun laws, on Monday said he would leave the task of determining this year’s change attempts up to Hortman and Gazelka.
Gov. Tim Walz remains supportive of efforts to move red flag and background check measures through the Legislature, adding that he didn’t think the issues were “intractable.” Walz, like others in his party, cited interactions with suburban voters whom he said predicated their votes on the issue.
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, will again be among those working on similar bills in the Senate. It will be a task certain to draw another round of fierce debate, but one Latz has also chosen to view as being buoyed by voters’ expectations.
“I think the political winds have shifted this year and that’s the big difference,” Latz said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to be able to pass some meaningful legislation this year. If we don’t, there absolutely will be electoral consequences in 2020.”
Staff writer Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.