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Minnesota’s gun control bill doomed by caucus split, pragmatic politics

The House votes just weren’t there, but many in the DFL now believe they have enough votes to pass the other hot-button issue, gay marriage. 

“I took more grief this session than at any time in my career. There were vile things said to me. There were threats. I was OK with that because I thought we’d get this to the floor,” said bill sponsor Rep. Michael Paymar.
MinnPost file photo by James Nord

House Speaker Paul Thissen’s decision to retreat from the gun issue was based on pragmatic politics.

After a DFL House caucus session Tuesday, it was clear that legislation that would have tightened Minnesota’s background checks on gun purchases was not going to pass.

The decision was made at that time by DFL leadership not to force what would have been a difficult vote for many caucus members.

The action to back away from guns means that the other hot-button social issue of the session, gay marriage, will make it to the House floor.

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It appears that many in the DFL caucus believe there now are enough votes to pass that legislation in the House.

For some time, supporters of gay marriage have believed they have enough votes in the Senate to pass a gay marriage bill, which has the strong support of Gov. Mark Dayton.

One issue, but not both

But the politics of bringing both guns and marriage to the floor in the same session — especially if gun restrictions were going to fail — seemed like pushing “too much at the same time” in the words of one DFL representative, who asked not to be named.

That same representative pointed out that even if it had passed, it’s unclear if a gun law that would have closed the so-called gun show loophole would have made Minnesotans safer.

Meantime, there’s no doubt that passing a same-sex marriage bill will have clear, positive implications for many.

It was also obvious as the session moved along that the most progressive members of the caucus — and the governor — were putting more energy into gay marriage than guns.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, an ardent Second Amendment supporter and an ardent foe of gay marriage, is convinced Thissen’s decision was a trade-off.

There’s calculated timing in all of this, Limmer believes. There’s “no way,” in Limmer’s mind, that gay marriage would have come up next session, which will be just months away from an election for House members.

Thissen’s decision came as a relief to many legislators. But, not surprisingly, the most ardent supporters of stricter gun laws are hurt and angry.

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No one pushed harder on the issue than Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul.

Paymar, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, struggled relentlessly to get a bill through his committee.

Paymar’s frustrations

It’s really frustrating,” Paymar said Thursday morning. “I took more grief this session than at any time in my career. There were vile things said to me. There were threats. I was OK with that because I thought we’d get this to the floor.”

At one point, the bill Paymar was pushing was defeated by his committee. At that point, he was ready to let the issue drop.

“The speaker made a commitment to me at that time,” Paymar said. “He said, ‘Keep it alive. Don’t let this die in committee. I kept it alive because he asked me to.”

After the initial loss, Paymar worked out a compromise with Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center.

Hilstrom, you recall, is the legislator who early in the session quietly worked to build a bipartisan coalition of legislators who worked up a bill that most gun-control advocates found tepid.

That bill — which even had the support of Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, a strong NRA advocate — wasn’t sexy. It worked around the edges of gun control, including such things as improving collecting and recording data on those with criminal records or with mental health issues.

Hilstrom was vilified by some for her effort to find a middle ground. Among other things, she was called “an NRA whore” by some advocating strong gun control laws.

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Paymar refused to hear Hilstrom’s bill in committee.

Limmer believes that was a huge, potentially tragic, mistake. The Hilstrom bill, he said, would have helped keep guns out of the hands of those “who shouldn’t have them.”

Paymar and Hilstrom still managed to get a watered-down gun control bill out of committee. It was expected that the bill would be heard in the final days of the session.

Hilstrom chose not to comment on Thissen’s decision to retreat and the politics that surrounded it. 

Legislators’ locked-in positions

But others did comment, saying that the gun control issue is like the abortion issue. Legislators are locked into their positions and are not about to change.

Paymar said that early in the session, when the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School was still fresh in the minds of legislators, he thought some legislators were seriously contemplating changing long-held beliefs regarding gun control.

“Early in the session, I thought we were making progress in changing the hearts and minds of some rural Democrats and some Republicans,” Paymar said.

As time passed, however, that openness dwindled. The gun control bill that was to be debated would have been defeated.

In pulling out of the debate, Thissen told reporters Wednesday, “it just appears the groups on either side of the issue weren’t able to reach common ground.”

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With the House out of the picture, the Senate will feel no need to go down the perilous gun road, which comes as a relief to many, but not all, in that body.

Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, who is that body’s deputy majority leader, was among the disappointed.

“It [tightening background checks] polls well,” said Hayden. “We should have had an up or down vote. Tell Minnesotans how we feel.”

Throughout the gun debates this session, Hayden has made it clear that he understands that his view of gun control is different from the views of many in rural areas of the state. He lives in south Minneapolis in a neighborhood close to areas too often affected by gun violence.

“I respect people who have different views,” Hayden said. “But I know that it [background checks] is overwhelmingly popular in my district.”

Paymar said he understands the old political strategy that the majority party should only bring measures to the floor that can pass.

Pragmatism vs. cynicism

“I agree with that school of thought when you’re talking about big bills, like omnibus finance bills,” he said. “But on these sorts of issues, it’s my belief that people send you here to vote. When you don’t do that, I think it does nothing but make the public more cynical.”

Both proponents and opponents of stricter gun control legislation are certain of one thing: The issue will return.

“It’ll be back like clockwork,” said Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee. “All I can say for now is, ‘Thank God for my rural DFL friends.’ This was truly a bipartisan victory.”

Said Paymar, “We’ll live to fight another day.”