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The fight over gun legislation at the Minnesota Capitol might be a preview of the fight over pretty much everything at the Capitol

While House DFLers are eager to act on gun legislation, Senate Republicans are not persuaded that changes to state law are needed, a position that also applies to a series of other DFL priorities. 

Moms Demand Action organized a first-day-of-session rally
Moms Demand Action organized a first-day-of-session rally in the Capitol Rotunda last week.

Last summer, two candidates for the Republican nomination for governor of Minnesota took two approaches to the issue of gun safety.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty took a nuanced position. While saying he thought the 2nd Amendment protects individual gun owners, the former governor endorsed a ban on bump stocks; supported broadening universal background checks, saying he would like to see that system extending on a voluntary basis to non-licensed gun sales.

His opponent, Jeff Johnson, went in another direction: He opposed all restrictions on the sale and ownership of guns beyond current laws.

It hasn’t been lost on Republican elected officials that Pawlenty was defeated by Johnson when Minnesota Republicans voted in the August primary. But it also wasn’t lost on them that Johnson was defeated when the electorate included all voters in the November general election.

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Was gun control the only issue in either election? No. Polls showed that just a handful of voters identified it as the most-important issue. But, among those passionate about gun control, it was a motivating one.

Now, Democrats who took control of the state House want to push several gun safety bills, and are arguing that Republicans who still control the Senate should heed the general election results, especially the results the Twin Cities suburbs. While there were many issues at play in those races (Donald Trump being first among them), one of the issues that delivered House control to the DFL was gun safety.

As House Speaker Melissa Hortman said at a first-day-of-session rally with the gun safety group Moms Demand Action: “You elected this majority. And you have put us in a position to move legislation forward, to get legislation passed the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman speaking at a first-day-of-session rally with the gun safety group Moms Demand Action.
There is little doubt that Hortman’s DFL majority in the House will pass at least two gun-safety measures. When DFLers released their list of the 10 bills they’d take up in the body, two addressed gun control: establishing universal background checks for all gun purchases — in effect closing the loophole around private sales — and implementing so-called “red flag” warnings allowing people to seek court-ordered extreme risk protection orders to remove guns from potentially dangerous people.

But that qualification — that the bills will pass the House — is what hangs over the issue this session, as Senate Republicans are not persuaded that changes to state law are needed, a position that applies not just to gun bills but also to a series of other DFL priorities, from a public option for health insurance to a gas-tax hike and paid family leave.

What did the election mean, then?

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, does not see too much of a policy message in the 2018 election results that gave DFLers a majority in the House. Instead, Gazelka attributes the GOP losses to an unpopular president and normal mid-term struggles by the party in control of the White House. “We’ve had divided government for most of the time in Minnesota,” Gazelka said when asked about the election results. “For some reason [voters] like that. It was a normal midterm sweep. We think our ideas matter and work and we’re gonna prove it.”

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, is the chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, where the gun bills will go if they reach the Senate, and he too appears unmoved by the election results.

He said that GOP action will likely be in the area of making schools safer through better security and protections. “Gun safety will continue to be a topic of discussion at the Capitol. Last year, those conversations led to a significant investment in school safety that I’m very proud of, and I think there will be interest in doing more for schools this year. With divided government, any new solutions will need to have wide bipartisan support to be seriously considered.”

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In response to those comments, Hortman again pointed to the election results, which suggests GOP senators in the suburbs around the Twin Cities could be at risk in 2020. One of the two GOP House members in Limmer’s 34th District, for example, lost their re-election, and there are two other Districts now represented by GOP senators where both House seats were captured by the DFL in the most recent election.

“We always get a little bit better at listening to our constituents when we’re headed into an election cycle,” she said. “House members tend to think we’re better at listening to Minnesotans because we’re on the ballot every two years. I think as Sen. Limmer talks to constituents in Maple Grove, he will find that there are a lot of people who found Parkland to be the last straw.”

Looking ahead to 2020

The 2018 and 2020 elections were certainly on the minds of activists who demonstrated outside the House and Senate on the opening day of the 2019 legislative session.

Bob Mokos, whose sister was killed by a firearm, noted that the session was convening on the 6th anniversary of the assault in Tucson that resulted in six dead and seriously injured U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords.

Mokos said there should be systems in place to respond to people getting guns who shouldn’t have them: criminals, those with mental health issues, those who have threatened family members or others. There isn’t such a system, he said, because the gun lobby has quashed them.

“However, there is a process in place to remedy this issue. And that is called an election,” Mokos said. “All legislators in the Senate or the House who continue to defy the wishes of the majority will find themselves running against a common-sense gun candidate in the next election.

“As this past election demonstrated, if our legislators will not protect us, then they can expect us in 2020.”

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Walz is a yes

New Gov. Tim Walz has said he would sign a gun bill if it reaches his desk. Walz underwent his own conversion on gun laws after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida resulted in the death of 17 students and staff members. Walz, who had received “A” grades from NRA during much of his time in Congress, got an “F” from the gun-rights group after he endorsed bills being pushed by gun-control activists.

“I’ve rejected this notion that you can’t protect 2nd Amendment rights at the same time that you have common-sense legislation,” Walz said after his swearing in as governor.

“I think there’s going to be an opportunity for all of us to work that,” he continued. “I know this is an incredibly charged issue. But to move a couple of pieces of legislation that have data supporting that they make our communities, our schools, our workplaces safer and having no impact on the ability of lawful gun owners to purchase firearms seems like the right thing to do.”

But any measures will also be fought by gun-rights advocates. “Violent crime involving firearms has been trending down for almost three decades,” said Rob Doar, vice president and political director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, which opposes additional gun laws. “Minnesota is one of the safest states in the country — new and extreme approaches are not needed.

“We remain hopeful that solutions that would actually yield positive results like school safety, stronger enforcement of current law, and strategies to help loved ones in crisis will be part of the conversation. So far, all we have seen is proposals that will have virtually no impact on criminals, but tremendous impact on law-abiding gun owners.”