The Minnesota Senate voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to allow gun owners to use deadly force virtually anywhere they feel threatened -- a step that would dramatically expand gun rights.

The measure, passed 40-23 by the GOP-led Senate after hours of tense debate, would allow Minnesotans in dangerous situations to shoot to kill, whether they are in a car, at a campground or on a boat.

Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vergas, who sponsored the bill, said that in a life-or-death situation, "I shouldn't have to worry about running. I should be able to defend myself."

But law enforcement officials say the change opens the door to increased gun violence and puts authorities at greater risk when serving warrants or conducting everyday police business.

"This has ominous implications for the peace and well-being of Minnesota," said DFL Sen. John Harrington, a former St. Paul police chief. "The changes in this bill are absolutely sweeping and absolutely unnecessary."

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has not indicated whether he will sign or veto the measure, but he said he will seek the advice of prosecutors and police officials. "He takes very seriously the concerns of the entire law enforcement community," said Bob Hume, a Dayton spokesman.

The Republican-controlled House approved the legislation last year and will need to sign off on some minor revisions before sending it to Dayton.

Nation divided

The nation is closely divided over such gun-rights expansions. Twenty-one states have similar laws on the books. The National Rifle Association has made it a top priority for years to allow gun owners the right to defend themselves whenever they feel threatened.

Hoffman said that constituents came to her proposing the measure and that she tried to ease fears it could endanger law enforcement officials. The bill says that gun owners cannot use deadly force against authorities carrying out their duties.

Minnesota law already allows residents to use deadly force in their homes, but the bill extends that right to wherever they are.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said she doesn't expect the law to change the way people react when they feel threatened. "It's about what happens in the court of law afterward," Ortman said. "This is about the presumption that the law-abiding citizen has acted in self-defense."

The legislation also grants people from outside of Minnesota permission to bring guns licensed in their home state into this state.

In addition, the bill would prevent law enforcement officials from confiscating firearms during a government-declared state of emergency, unless a crime had been charged.

Hoffman said she was gravely concerned about reports that law enforcement agencies confiscated some firearms after Hurricane Katrina. "One of the worst things you can do, for people who are already stressed, in a chaotic situation ... is to take their guns away," Hoffman said. "They don't have a way to defend themselves."

Opponents noted that it is already legal to use deadly force when under attack and that there is not one example of anyone in Minnesota being convicted for using lethal force to defend themselves. Critics said the change would make it possible for anyone to open fire the moment they felt threatened, even if there was no apparent danger.

"Now you have the right to shoot first and ask questions later if this bill passes," said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. "Later might not mean anything if you have good aim."

During a break in the debate, DFL opponents joined law enforcement officials to hold a news conference renewing their opposition.

Loophole for murder?

"This bill provides a loophole for a defense of what I would call cold-blooded murder," said Champlin Police Chief David Kolb of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.

Kolb recounted being 10 years old and sneaking onto a neighbor's south Minneapolis property to steal apples from a tree.

Based on the proposal, "now the property owner can use force, and even deadly force, against that 10-year-old apple thief," Kolb said. "You can see the disconnect here with reality."

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said the bill is meant to protect "good folks.''

"Why wouldn't we let citizens ... protect themselves wherever they are in the state of Minnesota?" asked Ingebrigtsen, a former sheriff of Douglas County. "This bill is about good folks and giving them an opportunity to defend themselves."

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288