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House gun hearings open with charged — but polite — arguments from both sides

Advocates of more firearm restrictions supported two bills, while NRA representatives and other pro-gun groups vehemently opposed the measures.

“My dad lived the American Dream, but died the American Nightmare,” said Samuel Rahamim, son of slain Accent Signage owner Reuven Rahamim.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

“Nothing prepares you to hear the news that your father has been murdered with a gun.”

That opening statement from Samuel Rahamim came at Tuesday’s packed House committee session on the first of three days of legislative hearings dealing with a wide range of gun control legislation.

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Rahamim’s father was the owner of Accent Signage, the Minneapolis site of a September workplace shooting that took Reuven Rahamim’s life and the lives of three others.

His son’s emotional speech quickly moved on to horrific statistics about gun violence in the United States and ended with a plea for members of the House Public Safety Committee to pass legislation tightening restrictions on firearms.

“While legislation cannot prevent every gun death, it is our moral obligation to save as many lives as possible,” Rahamim told lawmakers on the committee. “I want my story told so that other families will not have to go through the devastation that mine has experienced. My dad lived the American Dream, but died the American Nightmare.”

Gun Week at the Capitol opened with charged — but polite — give and take from both sides of the controversial gun-control debate.

Advocates of more restrictions on firearms testified in support of two bills while representatives from the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups vehemently opposed the measures.

Rep. Tony Cornish is an outspoken advocate for gun rights.
MinnPost photo by James Nord
Rep. Tony Cornish is an outspoken advocate for gun rights.

“The one bright hope that I have is the bills were even more terrible than I thought they were, giving our members more reason to vote against them,” said Rep. Tony Cornish, an “unapologetic” gun advocate who sported a custom NRA tie and an assault-weapon lapel pin. “I never knew how far-reaching they were.”

The national debate on gun laws since the mid-December Newtown shootings played out on the local level in the House hearing room. It was crowded with pro-gun advocates sporting buttons that read “Self defense is a human right” and opponents who wore tags declaring “Minnesotans against being shot.”

At least 500 people watched the scene unfold in the muggy chamber or from overflow seating elsewhere in the building.

The committee, chaired by DFL Rep. Michael Paymar of St. Paul, considered two bills. Paymar’s bill would require universal background checks when purchasing guns, and Rep. Dan Schoen’s measure would grant more leeway for  police to take into account mental health issues when someone applies for a permit to purchase or carry a gun.

Rep. Michael Paymar outlined his universal background checks bill before the Hou
MinnPost photo by James Nord
Rep. Michael Paymar outlined his universal background checks bill before the House Public Safety Committee.

A preview of the legislation that Paymar’s committee will hear this week — no amendments or votes will be taken — can be found here. Once the proposals have been thoroughly considered, Paymar hopes to craft an omnibus gun bill.

Tuesday’s hearing played out with a sort of back-and-forth as advocates and opponents attempted to counter each other’s “facts” about gun purchases, weapons-related violence and the need for additional regulation.

When police officers testified in support of the background check bill, Chris Rager, a lobbyist for the NRA, insisted the so-called “gun show loophole” that the measure attempts to close doesn’t actually exist.

Republican Rep. Jim Newberger called the measure “an egregious attack on the second amendment.”

Similarly, after Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek praised Schoen’s bill, a member of the Minnesota Gun Owners’ Civil Rights Alliance called the proposal “upside down.”

“Can I suggest that that is backwards, upside down and inside out, dysfunctional, counterproductive?” David Gross, treasurer of the Gun Owners’ Alliance, asked. “Yes, let it be the start of a discussion … it’s someplace to start, and looking at this provision, we know precisely what not to do. Nothing is completely worthless — it can always serve as a bad example.”

Paymar said afterward that he was pleased with the respectful tone.

“We can have a respectful discussion about this regardless of what he’s wearing or what other folks feel here,” Paymar said. “There are crime victims here that feel very differently and say very different things about their experiences that have a very different slant on this.”

The committee will continue taking testimony on the bills Tuesday night, but the most controversial proposals will come Wednesday, when lawmakers consider a state ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. It remains to be seen if things will remain cool.

“I think it’s the first step toward having a sane conversation in Minnesota about some very divergent views and I was very appreciative of the tone,” Paymar said. “I hope throughout the week we can continue to have this discussion.”