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‘Shoot first’ bill produces heated bang-bang exchanges

Rep. Tony Cornish is no stranger to controversy.
He’s already sponsored one bill this session that would remove the requirement for a state background check before a firearm is purchased.

Rep. Tony Cornish is no stranger to controversy.

He’s already sponsored one bill this session that would remove the requirement for a state background check before a firearm is purchased. Now, a “shoot first and ask questions later” clause in a more recent bill is causing a ruckus of its own.

Cornish temporarily gave up his chairmanship Thursday to present far-reaching gun reform legislation to the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee.

The Lake Crystal police chief, adorned with a handcuffs lapel pin and a cop-themed tie, made the case for a bill that would allow longer stretches between mandatory firearm permit applications, require police officers to return confiscated weapons in certain situations, loosen restrictions for the use of deadly force and recognize all other states’ permits to carry a gun.

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The meeting was packed. A steamy basement hearing room and overflow seating two floors above were drafted to meet the demand, and a dozen testifiers demonized or lauded Cornish’s proposal.

First came the opponents.

“It is a rare occurrence when I testify against a bill from Rep. Cornish,” Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said, criticizing the “shoot first” and permit-expansion pieces of the legislation.

Minnesota has permit reciprocity with 15 states.

Three prominent police organizations — the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, the Minnesota Sheriffs Association and the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association — oppose the bill.

Forcing police officers to return guns to their owners in some instances “is not in the best interest of public safety in Minnesota, and that will come back to haunt us,” said Dennis Flaherty, of the police and peace officers association.

The most controversial measure in the legislation, the “shoot first” provision, was the most widely condemned. If passed, the bill would allow homeowners to use deadly force against someone who enters their residence – now presumed a threat under the bill’s language – even if it was an accident or the person posed no danger.

It would also extend the definition of a “dwelling” to “an overnight stopping destination of any kind” or “a motor vehicle, watercraft, mobile home, tent, or the equivalent.”

Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota, an anti-gun group, offered several  “horror stories” of incidents gone wrong.

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But that didn’t seem to make much difference to the room full of supporters, some of whom were wearing sidearms.

Martens recounted the story of a man who fired a rifle from his bedroom window in the dead of night and hit a teenager in the head. She said homeowners in support of Cornish’s bill want to be able to shoot into the darkness without facing any consequences.

A low chuckle reverberated throughout the room.

Supporters, who include some law enforcement officers (Cornish was quick to point that out), defended the bill as relatively similar to state law.

Todd Miller, Mankato Public Safety Department director, said with budgets stretched thin, police can’t guarantee safety – but Cornish’s bill would help people defend themselves.

Cornish called opponents’ objections “a lot of hoopla, a lot of claims, a lot of absurdity.”

He also reminded the committee multiple times that “all law enforcement doesn’t feel like that,” referring to the three professional organizations that came out against the bill.

Essentially, Republicans took the hard line.

A perfect example of the GOP attitude: “This bill send a message to criminals, and I believe it acts as a deterrent,” said Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove. “Don’t break into a house and you won’t get hurt. It’s a novel idea.”

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But as Republicans charged ahead, Democrats pulled out examples of innocents dying if they accidentally wander into a house while drunk or on drugs.

“I find no common sense at all about this bill,” DFL Rep. Rena Moran said, calling it “the ultimate state of being paranoid.”

Democrats also touted organized law enforcement’s opposition to the measure. Cornish, however, trashed their stance on previous public safety legislation.

“Law enforcement was united against the Personal Protection act,” Cornish said. “United and wrong.”

Ultimately, the bill was sent to the House Judiciary Committee.

Cornish said he hasn’t spoken to Gov. Mark Dayton about the bill, and the governor said on Wednesday that he hadn’t reviewed the proposal.

“I don’t know what to expect from the governor,” Cornish said. “I think even the governor is a gun guy. I think he’s got guns.”