WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen is joining a bipartisan effort in Congress to encourage states to pass laws that let law enforcement take firearms from people determined to be a danger to themselves or others.
The measure unveiled this week is named for Jake Laird, an Indiana police officer shot to death in 2004 by a man with mental illness. Nine states including Indiana have passed some variation on the so-called “red flag” laws, and the congressional proposal would provide grants meant to incentivize other states to do so. Minnesota does not currently have such a law.
The state laws generally allow law enforcement officers to seize and keep guns from people who are suicidal, or have threatened others with violence. The push to get more states to adopt such a law follows the recent mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February, which spurred questions about why authorities didn’t do more after receiving complaints that the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, posed a threat.
“As we learned in the Parkland, Florida shooting, often before a violent crime is committed by someone coping with mental illness, the warning signs are there,” Paulsen said in a statement. “But unless that individual is otherwise prohibited from owning a firearm, law enforcement is powerless to act. Gun violence restraining orders enable law enforcement to safely get guns out of the hands of people who may be of danger to themselves or others.”
Paulsen’s office did not respond to a Star Tribune interview request. The Eden Prairie Republican, who represents large portions of suburban Hennepin and Carver counties, has generally voted with his party against stronger gun control measures, and has been the recipient of National Rifle Association campaign donations.
But Paulsen also drew criticism last year from gun rights activists after he co-sponsored legislation to ban the sale, manufacture and use of bump stocks — devices that allow firearms to shoot bullets as rapidly as an automatic weapon and were used by a gunman to kill 58 people during a concert in Las Vegas last fall.
DFL legislators in Minnesota have pushed in the current session for red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders. But Republicans who control the state House and Senate have blocked their attempts.
Bryan Strawser, executive director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, said the group is not on board. “We believe we should talk about strategies to help individuals when they’re in crisis, but there are significant concerns we have about due process,” he said.
Backers say there are ways to ensure due process under red flag laws. But Strawser pointed to a recent analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union of a red flag law proposal in Rhode Island. The group said that it was deeply concerned about “its impact on civil liberties, and the precedent it sets for the use of coercive measures against individuals not because they are alleged to have committed any crime, but because somebody believes they might, someday, commit one.”
Strawser said there’s more pressure on suburban lawmakers on both sides of gun issues. “I think there’s some concerns with some of his constituents that we’ve heard about the actions that he’s taking and where does he really stand on the issue of gun rights compared to his strong support in the past,” Strawser said of Paulsen.
A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll in April found that 74 percent of Hennepin and Ramsey county residents support stricter gun laws in the U.S., and 69 percent of residents in those two counties felt Congress was not going far enough to pass new gun control laws.
Paulsen is co-sponsoring the new proposal with fellow Republicans from Indiana and Michigan, and Democrats from Florida and Michigan. Families of the victims of the Parkland shooting have come out in support of the bill and urged lawmakers to hold a hearing on the matter before the House Judiciary Committee and to pass the legislation quickly.
“We must continue to work together to keep firearms away from those that are an immediate risk to themselves or to others,” the families wrote in a letter to U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., and Ted Deutch, D-Fla.
Paulsen said that since the enactment of the Jake Laird Law in Indiana, studies have shown that it was used 68 percent of the time on people who threatened to kill themselves and 21 percent on those who threatened to harm someone. In another 16 percent of seizure cases, people had active psychosis, he said.
Back home in his Third Congressional District, Paulsen has faced criticism from activists with the progressive group Indivisible on guns. Jena Martin, co-chairwoman of the district’s Indivisible chapter, cited Paulsen’s NRA support and past votes in favor of legislation to allow concealed carry reciprocity and to repeal rules restricting gun sales to those with mental illness.
“It just seems contradictory,” Martin said.