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

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.

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.”

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.

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.

“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.

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Cecil North on 01/26/2011 - 03:26 pm.

    So Cornish favors putting more guns in the hands of “bald-head kook[s]” who might otherwise be weeded out by State background checks which, unlike Fed checks, include HHS data?

    Let’s face it, firearms are like crack to people like Cornish: too much is never enough.

  2. Submitted by Douglas Shambo II on 01/26/2011 - 03:30 pm.

    Rep. Cornish’s timing – so soon after the disasterous shootings in Arizona – is very enigmatic. Is he more concerned about stopping criminals from obtaining guns, or making it easier for them to get them?

  3. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 01/26/2011 - 03:32 pm.

    Focusing like a laser on jobs and the economy. At least the law, apparently, will contain an exception to “must issue” for “bald-head kooks.” The next Jared Loughner will need to be just sane enough to realize he needs to put on a wig.

  4. Submitted by Eric Larson on 01/26/2011 - 03:37 pm.

    I lay this at the feet of former SW Mpls Liberal Legislators Jane Ranum and Wes Skogland. Those two chairs (Judiciary? Either way. Gun law changes went to their committees first) sat on gun right bills for decades. “Bottled up” was the term I heard. Even when they had large DFL support. They said the streets of Mpls would be running in blood. They were wrong. They denied the will of the people with the power of their gavels. They damaged the collegial relationship of legislators with their arrogance. Now the payback is being issued and they are gone. At least Sen. Ranum is now a judge. Hope she doesn’t rule against law abiding types who use guns to defend themselves against law breakers.

  5. Submitted by Nate Pete on 01/26/2011 - 03:48 pm.

    Wow….just….wow. What happened to JOBS? I guess we get what we elected. Nothing like ramming through a gun bill. Somebody tell this guy it’s 2011, not 1911.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/26/2011 - 04:28 pm.

    Mr. Cornish has an interesting view of not only public safety, but how democracy should work. I hope Minnesotans will remember him after the inevitable next shooting.

  7. Submitted by Tim Walker on 01/26/2011 - 04:44 pm.

    Truly, the inmates are now running the asylum.

    How can supposedly full-functioning and mature adults behave in such a crude way? Why are they so boastful of their ignorance and their ability to form opinions contrary to undisputed facts?

    I fear that we are on the edge of a societal breakdown, and that this legislation, if enacted into law, is just pushing us closer to that edge.

  8. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/26/2011 - 04:57 pm.

    Cornish’s angry and hostile reaction to a straightforward and honest question shows even he cannot honestly defend this lame bill. Obviously, Cornish favors the rights of “bald-head kooks” who have free access to weapons of mass destruction over the rest of us who would like to see access to handguns and automatic weaponry at least limited to the certifiably sane. Why won’t he just admit it?

    His ravings about an armed populace leading to fewer shootings have no basis in reality. The various “studies” which have tried to prove this have been all discredited. Cornish and his fellow gun-right nuts cannot face true facts: countries which regulate gun ownership have far lower homicide rates.

  9. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/26/2011 - 05:04 pm.

    Well, the new session Republican lawmakers certainly come out of their shells this session.

    Carrying a gun in a weapon-free zone. Refusing to see parties that don’t endorse them. Doing away with testimony from relevant parties.

    It certainly will be an interesting session.

  10. Submitted by Joe Musich on 01/26/2011 - 09:15 pm.

    Is this what we havebecome ?

  11. Submitted by Allison Sandve on 01/26/2011 - 09:25 pm.

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


    The families of the Tucson victims deserved better.

  12. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 01/26/2011 - 09:29 pm.

    Okay, what kind of pervert wears handcuffs on their lapel? I guess the kind that thinks in the wake of what happened in Arizona it’d be wise to make it easier for wingnuts to buy guns. Its not like you can’t go to a gun show and buy one right now. No paper work, nothing, walk in with the cash walk out with a gun. It can be done without even showing an ID. If you talk the talk and gain their trust private will sell you a gun.

  13. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 01/27/2011 - 11:28 am.

    Madness. Guns do not stop violence. Guns kill. And since there are almost no real checks on who purchases a gun, people like the AZ guy buy guns. And so do many others in the belief they are protecting themselves.
    Shootouts at Supervalue? In the Capitol among disagreeing, angry congresspeople? Who knows. But deaths go up, not down, when people arm themselves.
    Several people had guns at the Giffords event, and no one was able to stop the carnage.
    This is a reality check, Cornish, and YOU are the one who should apologize.
    If you are backing this kind of legislation, don’t be so thin-skinned. Or maybe you should shoot it out with your detractors.

  14. Submitted by William Pappas on 01/27/2011 - 08:58 pm.

    Not only did carried guns not stop the shootings in Tuscon they almost created more carnage. One on looker, concealed and carrying, nearly shot one of the men wrestling the “bald head kook” becasue he saw a holstered gun and mistook the heroic actions of an onlooker for the shooter. The only reason he didn’t shoot the man was becasue he couldn’t get a clear shot. Wouldn’t that have been a grizzly story. Cornish is a boor, uncouth and an insult to the legislative process. How do people like him get elected? To abolish gun checks in the wake of the Tuscon shootings, checks that would deny bald head kooks the right to purchase firearms, is beyond stupid. Cornish is drunk on his committee chairmanship and plans on rubbing DFL noses in the dirt. A real man would not be so insecure as to deny proper debate. I am alarmed by Cornish immature demeanor and paranoid abusive personality. It polarizes the discussion and gives strength to the idea tht “might makes right”. With Minnesota needing budget fixes and job growth Cornish is really zeroing in on legislation that works for us. So far we’ve seen redundant abortion bans and gun proliferation top the state republican legislation. That will really take us far.

  15. Submitted by Larry Coffman on 01/30/2011 - 01:48 pm.

    Please read and understand existing laws with regard to “Permit to Purchase” a handgun in Minnesota.

    Next, please read the HF161 bill as introduced in Minnesota and note THERE IS NO MENTION OF ELIMINATING BACKROUND CHECKS..

    HF161 will extend a procedure that NOW has a one year time frame which reguires a 7 day wait period complete with a “BACKROUND CHECK” in Minnesota. During this one year a resident of Minnesota may buy as many legally accepted(IN MINNESOTA)handguns he/she may want.

    HF161 does all of the above for a five year period instead of just one in Minnesota.

    Would you like to renew your drivers every year?
    Ever read a news story about a drunk or drugged up “Whako” who kills people while driving???

    Now if you don’t like guns in general fine you won’t shoot yourself. Good For You! But if you like to drive maybe you’re not so good for me!!!

    In closing, I’d like to point out that acceptable communication usually doesn’t take place with statements such as, “WHAT KIND OF A PERVERT WEARS HANDCUFFS ON HIS LAPEL”?


    Larry Coffman

    No for those of you who don’t read and understand,or don’t want or care to understand please stay “MUTE”.

  16. Submitted by Larry Coffman on 01/30/2011 - 01:54 pm.

    Where are they???

  17. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 02/02/2011 - 08:53 pm.

    Mr. Coffman,

    On Jan. 26th, Rep. Drazkowski replaced the original language of the House File 161 bill. Here is a link to the original bill, which you reference, “as introduced” Jan. 20:

    Here is the summary by the House Research Department of the Jan. 26 revision:

    Which begins with the text:
    “This bill repeals Minnesota’s requirement for a person wishing to purchase a handgun or semiautomatic military-style assault weapon from a federally licensed firearms dealer to first acquire a Permit-to-Purchase.”

    The Pioneer Press story specifically references Rep. Drazkowski’s sudden change:

    “With little advance warning, he offered the repeal by replacing language in a bill that would have extended the permit length from one year to five years. That tactic angered DFLers, who said it didn’t allow enough time for people to review it.”

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