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DFL is ‘darn close’ on gun bills, teeing up crucial vote on red flag law, more background checks

Both were priorities of DFL leaders including Gov. Tim Walz, and Democrats hold narrow majorities in the House and Senate. Republicans appear united in opposition, so all DFL senators would need to support the measures. It’s been unclear for months if the party has enough votes.

State Sen. Ron Latz
State Sen. Ron Latz said Wednesday that Democrats will unveil an updated version of the red flag proposal for a committee negotiating public safety policy between the House and Senate to consider.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

For months, it has been unclear if Democrats who control Minnesota’s narrowly-divided Legislature had enough votes to pass major regulations on guns. But on Wednesday, DFL lawmakers signaled they are more confident than ever.

Key Democrats announced a compromise “red flag” policy that would allow a judge to order firearms taken from someone who is a risk to themselves or others. And they also struck a deal on a measure that would extend background check requirements to private transfers.

A public safety conference committee, which is negotiating a larger policy and spending package for House and Senate lawmakers, adopted both measures as part of the “omnibus” bill. That paves the way for a vote in each chamber and is a sign DFL leaders believe the gun bills will advance to the desk of Gov. Tim Walz.

“In some states the governors are only willing or interested in pursuing red flag laws after there’s been a mass shooting in their community, in their home, in some cases killing friends or family members,” said Sen. Ron Latz, a DFLer from St. Louis Park who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. “Now, we will not be waiting for that kind of a tragedy to happen in Minnesota.”

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The progress is a remarkable development at the Legislature, where gun limits have been a priority of top Democrats like Walz. A version of both policies passed the House, but not the Senate, where the DFL has only a one-vote advantage and where a few DFLers from political swing districts have not made clear if they will vote for restrictions. While Democrats have been united on many issues at the Capitol this year, guns are one area that had the potential to split the party.

It’s still not 100% certain the DFL can muster the votes. But they appear to have persuaded at least one senator with concerns about restricting guns. Judy Seeberger, a Democrat from Afton, said before the committee vote on Wednesday that earlier versions of the red flag proposal “did not adequately take into consideration the rights of the law-abiding gun owners.”

“We have to navigate that line between doing what we need to to address gun violence while also respecting the rights of the law-abiding gun owners in Minnesota,” Seeberger said. 

But Seeberger helped revise and negotiate the measure adopted by the conference committee. “I think if we’re not there yet, we’re darn close to getting that right,” she said. “So I’m optimistic that we can get something done here yet this session.”

It was not just revisions to the bill — which appear to be minor compared to what the Senate had considered earlier this year — that may have motivated Seeberger to side with other Democrats. She also said the recent killings of law enforcement officers in Minnesota and Wisconsin, along with conversations with gun owners, had influenced her thinking on potential firearm restrictions. 

State Sen. Judy Seeberger
State Sen. Judy Seeberger
“Considering the deaths of law enforcement that we’ve had in the past couple of months including the one recently from St. Croix County — I grew up in St. Croix County, I’m a Hudson girl — so these start to feel a little bit personal. And so I think what we’re doing right now is not working. I’d like to see something, as would everybody else, to try to get at gun violence that is ruining so many lives.”

Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, also told Northern News Now on Wednesday that he supports both policies and will vote for them on the Senate floor.

The red flag policy, which is also known as an extreme risk protection order, has the support of some police organizations. It’s a policy that has become more prevalent across the country in recent years, including in some more conservative states like Florida. Minnesota Democrats and supporters of tougher gun laws argue a red flag law would prevent some mass shootings and suicides. The laws, in some states, are barely used. And while there is research to suggest they do prevent some gun violence, opponents argue overall suicide rates in states with those laws haven’t dropped.

Still, DFL lawmakers also hoped favorable polling numbers would help push a red flag policy across the finish line when other potential gun regulations have languished.

The current version of the proposal would allow certain people — including a family member, spouse, roommate, police officer, city or county attorney — to petition a judge for a court order removing firearms from a person at risk of suicide or harm to others.

That judge can grant an “emergency” order, which leads to a 14-day seizure of guns, if a person presents an “immediate and present danger.” Under those circumstances, the subject of the order is not made aware of the legal proceeding.

A judge can also grant a longer extreme-risk order, up to one year initially with potential for extensions. The gun owner in that case can give input to the court and contest any allegations.

That emergency order has drawn the most frustration from gun rights groups, who argue it amounts to a violation of due process. Rob Doar, senior vice president of government affairs for the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, said the measure didn’t change significantly from earlier proposals, and did not satisfy their own concerns. He said his organization will closely watch a court case in New York over the “ex-parte” process. “These bills are much more likely to get a good lawful person caught up on a technicality or on a false accusation than it is to actually prevent any tragedies,” he said.

Democrats, meanwhile, said the temporary “emergency” order is a key portion of the bill. 

Latz told MinnPost in April that he wouldn’t support a version of a red flag law that doesn’t allow the seizure of guns on a judge’s order made without knowledge of the firearm owner.

“Without the ex-parte part of it, you don’t have the ability on an emergency basis to separate someone who’s in the middle of a crisis of some sort from the guns that are already in their possession,” Latz said. “Without that path it’s just not worth it.”

The other gun policy adopted by the conference committee would extend background check requirements to private transfers, which don’t face all the requirements of traditional gun sellers. A person who refuses or can’t produce a record of transfer for a firearm would be guilty of a misdemeanor. And that record must be kept for a decade. There are exemptions, including for transfers between immediate family members at shooting ranges, and while actively hunting.

Doar said the measure criminalizes common behavior among peaceful gun owners. Democrats argue it helps close a loophole that allows people to get guns without background checks.

The conference committee’s adoption of the background check and red flag provisions does not make them certain to pass. But it does make it far more likely. Members of the House and Senate will be presented with a large public safety omnibus bill, rolling together gun policy with hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on corrections, courts, emergency management, violent crime and more. It also will contain a host of other policies spanning a wide range of judiciary and public safety issues.

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And unlike other bills that come before lawmakers, a “conference committee report” forwarded to the House and Senate can’t be amended, though it could be voted down and sent back to conference committee. Including a multitude of policy and funding measures into an omnibus bill is a strategy that can make it easier for lawmakers queasy about any one provision in a bill to vote for the whole bunch. And it can prevent Republicans, who oppose the gun bills, from forcing Democrats to vote individually on the policies.

At least one key Democratic lawmaker still hasn’t committed to a ‘yes’ vote. Sen. Rob Kupec, DFL-Moorhead, told MPR News before the legislation was unveiled Wednesday that he was most unsure about the red flag policy. And he later told reporters he doesn’t want to say yes before seeing everything a conference committee will do, since the product is negotiated by the House, Senate and Walz. 

But Latz struck a celebratory note on Wednesday, saying the conference committee report was “the first time that these bills have gotten anywhere close to this far in the Legislature.”

“I’ve worked closely with Rep. (Dave) Pinto over the years trying to find the sweet spot and the votes,” Latz said of the background check provision during the committee hearing. “I think we may have done it this year.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout to reflect the conference committee’s approval of the omnibus bill that contains the gun regulation provisions.