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Universal background checks tabled; House DFL seeks compromise gun bill

The crowd had come expecting a vote but instead got a lesson in the hardball, backroom politics that surrounds the gun issue.  

Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, realized he could not get enough votes to pass his gun background checks bill out of the Public Safety Committee he chairs.
MinnPost file photo by James Nord

DFLers who seek some sort of gun legislation again were forced to reload Tuesday evening.

A bill that would have required nearly universal background checks on all gun sales in Minnesota was tabled after Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, realized he could not get enough votes to pass his bill out of the Public Safety Committee he chairs.

A room filled with a combination of supporters and opponents of gun laws was left baffled when Paymar walked to the front of the committee room, an hour and 15 minutes after the hearing was to have started.

“I appreciate your patience,” a weary-looking Paymar told members of the committee.

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Then, he turned to the crowd.

“Thank you all for being here,’’ he said. “We want to keep the discussion going.’’

There was a pause. The room was silent.

Paymar announced that he was “laying over the bill as amended.” Then, he adjourned the meeting.

There was a buzz in the hearing room, then, a few angry shouts. People had come expecting to see a vote, up or down.

Hardball politics

Instead, they got a lesson in the hardball, backroom politics that surrounds the gun issue.

The behind-the-scenes politicking going on Tuesday evening was so intense, so intriguing, that GOP legislators not on the public safety committee started showing up to see how all the dealings would come out.

The Tuesday committee meeting was to have begun at 7 p.m., but throughout the day and into the evening, Paymar had been counting votes and coming up short. In the end, he couldn’t get the votes he needed to move his bill to the floor.

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hilstrom portrait
Rep. Debra Hilstrom

Meantime, House Speaker Paul Thissen apparently was urging Paymar and Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, to meet and come up with some sort of resolution, a chore they began to undertake Tuesday evening.

Hilstrom is the representative who has led the charge for an NRA-approved gun bill that does not deal at all with background checks. Her bill, seen as extremely weak by those who want stricter gun laws in Minnesota, does have the support of a large swath of GOP and rural DFL legislators.

Her bill has made her the target of ugly vitriol from supporters of stronger gun control measures.

She’s been receiving a deluge of hate messages from people who claim to decry violence.

“NRA whore” is an example of the thousands of e-mails she has received.

Hate mail from both sides

In fairness, it should be noted that those with NRA leanings haven’t been exactly civil in some of the messages they’ve been sending to legislators who want stronger gun control laws.

hornstein portrait
Rep. Frank Hornstein

For example, Rep. Frank Hornstein, who had supported legislation that would have banned the sale of some semi-automatic assault rifles, received brutal hate messages from the pro-gun crowd.

“One called me a Nazi,” said Hornstein, whose parents were Holocaust survivors.

Hornstein said he thought he’d never again be the recipient of so many hate communications as he was a year ago, when Vikings fans unleashed their fury on him for his refusal to support the public subsidy for a football stadium.

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“But this is three times as bad,” he said of the passions surrounding guns.

So where does the background-checks bill stand now?

A Senate committee has passed a bill similar to the one that Paymar couldn’t get passed.

Whether that bill can pass the full Senate is highly questionable.

Vice President Joe Biden is among those intrigued by the status of gun legislation — specifically background checks — in Minnesota. He recently called Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk.

But the vice president did not call Paymar or Hilstrom.

Before Friday, those two will put together a bill that will maintain one key portion of the bill Paymar so desperately wanted to pass: Those who purchase weapons at gun shows would no longer be exempt from background checks.

But other key provisions, including person-to-person sales and Internet sales of guns would not be covered by background checks. Provisions that would have given police more discretion in withholding gun permits from some individuals also will disappear.

Compromise bill’s fate uncertain

The compromise bill also will include some of the things Hilstrom sought in her bill.

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Her measure would improve the flow of mental health and criminal data between the state and the feds. It also would create mandatory minimum prison sentences for felons convicted of possession of a firearm in a second offense. Those who file false reports on lost or stolen guns could be charged with a felony.

All along, Hilstrom has said she was intent on getting something passed.

Paymar was clearly crushed by what was lost.

“People are going to be disappointed,” he said. “I had people urging me, ‘Don’t give an inch.’ Even I had said I wouldn’t give an inch.”

But he had to give more than an inch, or all would have been lost.

At the end of the evening, Paymar and Hilstrom stood together and talked of the importance of compromise.

They said the bill they create will pass the committee, but they also both admitted that
it would face an uncertain future on the House floor.

Meantime, Republicans were scoffing at all the procedures Paymar and other DFLers had used to keep any form of gun bill alive.

Rep. Tony Cornish, the Capitol’s No. 1 foe of all gun control, had supported the Hilstrom bill.  But he said that there was “no chance” the Paymar-Hilstrom “abomination” would pass on the House floor.

But Cornish wasn’t alone in laughing at what a difficult night this had turned out to be for the DFLers who want stricter gun control.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt was among the legislators who came to observe. He — and other Republicans — were smiling a lot over the DFL struggles.

Understand, Republicans truly believe that the combination of guns and gay marriage will put them back in the majority in the Legislature in the 2014 elections.

A side note on how Tuesday evening ended.

As people were leaving the room, a man wearing the colors of the pro-gun rights crowd, was seen with a large pistol holstered on his hip.

“What sort of pistol is that?” I asked Cornish.

“Looks like a Glock,” Cornish said.

“Stylish,’’ I replied.

“I tend to think it’s better if you come to an event like this wearing a coat,” Cornish said. “In a crowd like this, some people get a little nervous when they see that.”