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Minnesota Legislature to review — and maybe revise — gun control laws

Several key Minnesota lawmakers are re-evaluating state firearm regulations and plan to hold hearings next session, following the Newtown school shootings.

When lawmakers return to the Capitol in January, firearms regulations are likely to be on the table.
Courtesy of MN House Public Information Services

Several key Minnesota lawmakers are re-evaluating state firearm regulations and plan to raise gun control issues next session, following the Connecticut school shootings.

However, state-level Democrats, who will control both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, say they are uncertain at this point whether — and how — the state’s gun regulations might change.

Many agreed that addressing the issues raised by the Newtown massacre would require a broader approach than just stricter firearm controls, but key public safety lawmakers say they will start by convening hearings to address gun policies.

Rep. Michael Paymar
Rep. Michael Paymar

“Whenever you have a social problem, the responsible thing to do is to hold hearings and get as much information as you can from all sides — and then make a decision about what legislation might be appropriate,” said DFL Rep. Michael Paymar, incoming chairman of the House Public Safety Committee.

In an interview, Paymar supported a number of proposals that surfaced Monday, including measures to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, expand background checks and tighten Minnesota’s 2003 firearm-carrying law. The St. Paul lawmaker, however, said he isn’t sure, for example, whether a state assault-weapons ban might conflict with federal guidelines.

Gov. Mark Dayton told reporters on Monday that he shared similar concerns, according to the Star Tribune. It’s also unclear how gun control legislation will play out on the national scene.

“At this point, I don’t think we have an option under the Second Amendment to do what some people are advocating,” Dayton said. “There’s a limit on what society can do to protect people from their own follies.”

Minnesota’s current laws

Connecticut “has about three times as much gun control” as Minnesota and the Newtown tragedy still occurred, said Joseph Olson, a “pro-gun” law professor at Hamline University,  in defense of the state’s current firearms laws.

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Minnesota doesn’t have a statewide gun or ammunition registry or laws regulating the number of rounds in a magazine, and no legislation has been brought forward to reinstate the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. Many of these policies, however, could be up for consideration after the Legislature convenes in January.

Currently, to purchase a handgun — or an “assault weapon” like the one Adam Lanza used in the Newtown shooting — Minnesotans must acquire a permit to purchase from their local police departments or a permit to carry – contingent on training — both of which require a state background check that can take up to seven days.

Joseph Olson
Joseph Olson

A permit to purchase allows someone to buy guns for up to a year. A permit to carry is valid for five years. When a person presents either permit to a federally licensed gun dealer while purchasing a weapon, he or she must go through an additional “instant” federal background check, Olson said. 

Minnesotans who want to buy a more traditional rifle or a shotgun must simply undergo the federal background check.

Minnesota’s carry law, passed in 2003, allows residents to conceal a gun on their person or wear one in the open. Local governments don’t have the authority to pass different “patchwork” gun regulations, Olson said.

One of the most contentious provisions of current Minnesota law is the so-called “gun show loophole,” which is the subject of strong disagreement between gun advocates and opponents.

Private sellers who are not federally licensed aren’t required to perform the federal NICS check at gun shows.

Gun control advocates — such as Paymar and Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota — argue that the loophole should be closed through state legislation.Olson, however, believes that state law requiring the private seller to look at a buyer’s purchase or carry permit serves as “Minnesota’s filler” to the loophole.

“Show me why the filler doesn’t work,” Olson said. “No one can, because no one’s ever been prosecuted under that statute.”

Push likely for stricter controls

Martens, who worked against “stand your ground” legislation that Dayton vetoed this year, said she’s confident Democrats will pass more stringent gun controls this session.

Over the past two years, Republican majorities in the Legislature — led by Rep. Tony Cornish in the House — have worked to expand gun owners’ rights. Cornish’s vetoed legislation was based on the controversial “castle doctrine” and would have expanded the legal self-defense protection for killing someone in a life-threatening situation.

With Republicans out of the way this session, Martens said she would work with lawmakers like Paymar and DFL Sens. Scott Dibble and Ron Latz, who have supported stricter controls in the past. Martens supports the assault weapons ban, restricting high-capacity magazines, closing the gun show loophole and altering the carry law.

“Now, unfortunately, and I wish I’d never seen this day [of the Newtown killings] … I think when it is more concrete for people to see what we meant, I think it’s more likely they’ll be willing to do what we’ve been telling them to do all along,” she said. “We want to do something to prevent gun violence.”

Sen. Scott Dibble
Sen. Scott Dibble

Dibble, the Senate public safety counterpart to Paymar, also voiced support for stricter controls in an interview on Monday, especially those related to what he considers the “fairly ill-conceived” carry law.

Dibble, who also plans to hold hearings, didn’t endorse specific policies but said, “We’ve definitely been moving in the wrong direction for some time now.”

But Cornish, outgoing chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, said he isn’t sure “there’s any interest in the DFL to be known as the party who took away gun owners’ rights.”

The legislator, a former Lake Crystal police chief, said he plans to introduce legislation allowing teachers to carry weapons in schools, “It’s like a wolf coming up to a bunch of sheep knowing that all they can do is run,” Cornish said.

Dayton disagrees with such a move, saying it “defies common sense.”

The governor said he’s open to lawmakers’ proposals to strengthen gun laws but appeared skeptical on Monday.

Paymar was also realistic about the chances of passing tougher legislation, noting that some rural Democrats — and that means necessary votes — aren’t necessarily on his side.

“I think [increased gun control] has a tough road, and I go back to what I keep calling the surrender mentality,” he said. “I think the Legislature has surrendered to the NRA and the gun extremists, and once that happens, it’s very difficult to move a bill, as common-sense as it might be, through the Legislature.”

Broader issues, too

Paymar is concerned because the public safety issues expand beyond gun control into mental health funding and school security, a sentiment that Dibble shares.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, also noted the “intersection” of public health concerns and gun control.

Winkler said he plans to carry legislation that would allow citizens to temporarily store firearms with law enforcement if they feel unsafe having the guns at home. A separate proposal Winkler has offered would have created a voluntary registry for people with mental illness to bar themselves from purchasing guns.

“None of it is comprehensive or a major step forward, but there are small things,” Winkler said. “I think we owe it to our communities and our kids to make an effort to understand what will actually work … and if nothing will work, we need to be honest about it.”

Paymar is also worried about the issue’s staying power, once the sting of Newtown fades for many Americans, as has happened after other shootings.

“After a period of time, the urgency seems to dissipate and the politics re-enters the equation,” he said. “People become nervous, and they want to focus on other issues … they look at this as a side social issue, and I don’t see it that way.”