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Background-checks gun bill advances in Senate, but fate uncertain

Opponents are unhappy that their NRA-backed bill was tacked on to the more-controversial measure. 

Sen. Ron Latz used his position as chair to strengthen gun-control legislation coming out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
MinnPost file photo by James Nord

A bill that was supposed to find common ground on firearms continues to divide Minnesota lawmakers, even as powerful Democrats push forward with their own priorities on gun control.

On a party-line committee vote Thursday, Democrats sent to the Senate floor a measure that includes so-called “universal” background checks — the main priority of gun-control advocates.

In the process, the Senate Judiciary Committee stifled competing gun legislation’s chances of passage.

Sen. Ron Latz, committee chairman, took much of the NRA-backed legislation that some Democrats hoped would bridge the ideological gap between the opposing sides and amended it into his more-controversial package of gun-control measures.

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“The bill was intentionally put together to draw on what I thought were the best suggestions of all of the persons at this table and others to create as much possibility for consensus as possible,” Latz said after the hearing.

He also reminded lawmakers of the power a committee chairman wields.

Latz blocked GOP Sen. Julianne Ortman’s pure version of the NRA-backed bill — which lawmakers unveiled last week — from receiving a vote in his committee.

Ortman’s proposal falls short of what gun-control advocates are looking for, but many lawmakers looked to it as a compromise bill to pass some form of gun legislation this session. Second Amendment supporters cheered the legislation on.

The bill would enhance data sharing with the federal background check system, crack down on so-called “straw purchases” and include a prosecutor-backed measure to address ammunition possession and illegal gun owners, among other provisions. 

Ortman was combative in committee and called on Latz to hear her bill — versions of which appeared to be gaining momentum in both the House and Senate over the last week.

Latz’s mash-up of gun legislation ended up further straining relations between both sides.

ortman portrait
Sen. Julianne Ortman

“I consider this to be a hostile takeover of my bill. I don’t support what you’re doing with my work,” Ortman told Latz during the Thursday hearing. “We don’t need new restrictions on gun purchases or ownership … we don’t need universal background checks.”

“We don’t need more gun control. We have plenty of gun laws,” Waconia Mayor Jim Nash told the committee, testifying against universal background checks. “What we need is criminal control. We need to understand the true nature of what’s going on in front of us.”

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After hearing testimony on several parts of Latz’s overall package, DFLers on the committee moved it forward on a 5-3 party-line vote. Now the Democrat from St. Louis Park has to round up enough votes to pass it in the Senate.

GOP Sen. Warren Limmer, a member of the Judiciary Committee, told Latz the universal background check provision doesn’t have the support to move forward. So far, opponents have attempted to cast stricter gun-control measures as unnecessary.

But Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, who originally carried the universal background check provision as a stand-alone measure, pushed back against the conventional wisdom that the bill doesn’t have the support to pass. Critics have said it is especially weak in the House.

“I think you’ve got to ask those folks have they … ‘whipped’ the caucuses in order to know if that’s true or not?” Champion said of whether they have enough votes. “I think … that’s a diversion in order to make sure they water down the process so that they don’t have to do some things that are important for all Minnesotans.”

Latz said he believes “there’s a reasonable chance” the bill could pass in the Senate. He was also “perplexed” Ortman didn’t support his package, which included much of what she wanted, chalking it up to “petulance.”

Ortman isn’t sure how she’ll move forward from here. Her bill could get pulled to the Senate floor, or Latz could change his mind and give it a hearing – but that’s unlikely.

“We’re kind of at the funny stage. The dust will settle over the next few days, I expect, and then we’ll see what’s going to happen,” Ortman said. “We haven’t made a decision on what to do next.”

Now, the attention switches back to the House.

Rep. Michael Paymar, who is carrying the companion to Latz’s measure, said the House Public Safety Committee would hear his bill on Tuesday. The St. Paul lawmaker is “hopeful” that the measure can garner the votes to pass.

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“Right now we’ll just have to wait and see,” Paymar said Thursday afternoon. “It’s hard to tell. It’s very close.”