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Chairman Cornish comes out blazing as House committee advances bill to eliminate gun checks

Before testimony was even heard, the big, brassy, gun-toting committee chairman said that the panel would pass the bill.

Rep. Tony Cornish
Rep. Tony Cornish

A bill that would strip away Minnesota’s ability to run background checks on individuals wishing to buy handguns came sailing out of right field this morning, landing before a House public safety committee.

Before testimony was even heard, Rep. Tony Cornish, the big, brassy, gun-toting committee chairman, said that the panel would pass the bill, which was presented by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha.

Cornish, a cop from Lake Crystal, likely is the strongest pro-gun advocate in the Legislature. There’s a bold sticker on his briefcase that reads: “Crime Control, Not Gun Control.”

Cornish was right, of course, on the bill’s fate.

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Measure appears to be on fast track
With Republicans in the majority, the bill did pass, 10-7, on a straight party-line vote. It passed despite compelling testimony from police groups who argued that the proposal is a bad idea. The bill, despite the bloody violence in Tucson, appears to be on a fast track.

In a session in which Republicans are attempting to say that jobs and the economy are the only big issues that matter, Drazkowski tried to wrap this gun bill in a “mandate-reduction” package.

Minnesota, he said, should dump its background checks because they are “duplicative” with federal background check laws.

Drazkowski said he didn’t know how much local government bodies could save by doing away with the background checks.

“But I did ask a county sheriff in my district how much it could save, and he said it could save a half to a full hour a week [of staff time].”

DFLers on the committee shook their heads in wonder at Drazkowski’s “data.” Republicans all kept a straight face.

The bill, which repeals amendments to Minnesota’s gun laws, came as a stunner to DFLers on the committee. Most DFLers there said that until Tuesday, they had not seen the proposal, which overwrites a much more modest amendment change.

Before testimony began, a number of DFLers, including Rep. Sheldon Johnson of St. Paul, tried to advise Cornish to lay the bill over so that more time could be given to preparing witnesses.

“This is a huge change,” Johnson said. “I’m amazed it’s not being brought forward as a [separate] bill [rather than as technical repeal legislation]. In terms of process, I’m not pleased at all.”

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Cornish says fast action returns ‘DFL favor’
Cornish countered all DFL pleas for time and process by hearkening to the 1970s, when gun-control bills were passed by DFLers with little advance notice.

“Offering some favors back,” the chairman said of the big rush on this big change.

Essentially, Drazkowski’s measure repeals Minnesota background checks. Period.

In a surprising position for a conservative Republican to take, Drazkowski argued that it was possible to repeal Minnesota background checks because of the great job the federal government is doing in that area.

Other Republicans, too, praised the federal program.

The police organizations — the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (which represents the vast majority of cops in the field) and the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association (which represents the vast majority of police chiefs in the state) — disagreed with the effectiveness of the federal program.

Dennis Flaherty of the Peace Officers Association, noted that the bill is coming forward at a particularly bloody time in our history (he said that 11 cops have been shot in the last week). The repeal of state background checks, he said, was “ill advised.”

He pointed out that the feds don’t receive data from such places as the state’s Human Services Department, which handles many cases involving drug and mental health problems. The state, however, does have access to information from DHS.

“We’re not there yet with the federal system,” Flaherty said.

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Cornish responded brashly.

“(As a cop) I’ve been kicked once and shot at twice and I still believe in this bill,” he said.

Bloomington Police Sgt. Mark Elliot, who supervises the city’s gun licensing, backed up the general concerns with specific data. Last year, he said, 541 people in Bloomington applied to purchase a weapon. Of that number, 37 were denied, he said, adding that none of them would have been denied by the feds because of holes in the system.

He pointed out that those convicted of gross misdemeanors — which might include such things as domestic abuse, crimes on behalf of a gang and stalking — would not have shown up in the federal background check. Additionally, he said, those who are awaiting sentencing or those who are placed by judges in diversion programs, also would not show up.

Republicans were not moved.

When Heather Martens — president of Citizens for a Safer Minnesota, which supports stricter gun laws — testified, she told Republicans on the committee that she could see that “this is an effort to get rid of background checks all together.” 

Passage of the bill would put Minnesotans at harm and be beneficial to those who do harm, she said.

Then, she asked, “Which side are you on?”

Cornish exploded.

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“That’s a rude, offensive question,” he said.

He also derided anyone who brought up the shootings in Tucson.

“That was a bald-head kook,” he said.

Over and over again, Cornish argued that fewer gun restrictions have led to fewer shootings.

As the hearing came to its predictable conclusion, Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, made a quiet-spoken suggestion to Cornish.

He pointed out to him that at the start of the hearing, Cornish had said, “We’ll pass it. … The committee process is not supposed to be a given.”

Hilty suggested that in the future it might be a good idea for legislators to hear testimony before deciding how they’ll vote.

Cornish said the “chair has the prerogative to say whatever he wants,” but he thought Hilty had made a good point.

Then came the vote. Cornish, of course, had been right all along.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.