DFL lawmakers who control the Minnesota Legislature have cleared their toughest obstacle for approving two major gun regulations, paving the way for new limits on firearms to reach the desk of Gov. Tim Walz and become law.
On a 34-33 vote shortly before midnight Friday, the state Senate passed a “red flag” proposal that will allow courts to order firearms taken from someone who is a danger to themselves or others. And the Senate also approved a measure to extend background checks to certain private gun transfers. Both were part of a larger package of spending and policy linked to the criminal justice system.
The omnibus bill was opposed by every Republican and supported by every Democrat, including, critically, a small group of moderates who for months had not revealed how they might vote on the legislation.
That silence had led to a lobbying blitz from advocates of tougher gun laws and gun rights groups who wanted to stop or significantly alter the proposals. In the end, Senate Democrats struck a deal on Thursday and then banded together in a floor vote in what was one of the biggest tests of DFL unity at the Legislature this year. Debate over the omnibus bill lasted roughly nine hours.
The House is expected to take up the measure next, where the outcome is less in doubt. Democrats with a majority in that chamber had already passed a version of the gun bills earlier this year.
Here are four takeaways from the last chapter of debate over the gun regulations:
Swing-vote Democrats cited their kids, police and wanting to ‘do something’ to justify their votes
Democratic lawmakers and advocates pushing for tougher gun laws tried all sorts of arguments to sway moderate DFLers to side with them. They pointed to an embrace of the policy in some conservative states, or favorable polling. They argued the background check and red flag provisions were focused on separating people who shouldn’t have guns from those firearms, rather than banning a type of firearm for everybody. Some pointed to suicide in Greater Minnesota and elsewhere as a reason to embrace the bills.
So how did swing-vote Democrats explain their votes?
Sen. Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton, said on Thursday that the recent killings of law enforcement officers in Minnesota and Wisconsin played a role in her thinking.
“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,” Seeberger said. “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, mentioned police in an interview with Northern News Now. But he also cited school shootings as a big reason for his decision to vote for the bill. And he returned to that idea on the Senate floor Friday.
“What I know is I cannot look my kids in the eye and say there is nothing I could do to keep them safe,” Hauschild said.
Sen. Rob Kupec, DFL-Moorhead, appeared to wait until the floor debate late on Friday night to explain his decision to vote for the gun regulations.
Kupec said he actually campaigned on the background check measure but had always been “somewhat tepid” on the red flag legislation. He said he met with gun owners in his district, and held town halls where “that’s all we’ve talked about.” He also met with supporters of gun restrictions like Moms Demand Action.
Kupec said he didn’t think the two gun measures would solve all violence problems. He said mental health funding the Legislature will pass was good. And he said he wished there were stiffer penalties for people who commit crimes with guns.
“But I think we have to do something,” he said. “And of all the things that have been brought forward this session, in some ways I feel like these are definitely the least onerous of things we can do.
“I think they are worth trying,” he added.
Swing-vote Democrats didn’t change the red flag, background check measures much
One reason some late-deciding DFLers said they voted in favor of gun restrictions was because of changes made to those policies meant to address concerns about impact on law-abiding gun owners. Lawmakers talked about keeping police in mind, too.
In the end, the legislation had small differences compared to the first iterations proposed by Democrats in the House and Senate.
Sen. Ron Latz, a DFLer from St. Louis Park who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, told reporters Friday that lawmakers scaled back criminal penalties for not producing a record of transfer when asked by police as part of an investigation. They also slashed a record-keeping requirement in that legislation from 20 years to 10 years. Democrats shortened a time period for how often the subject of an extreme-risk protection order can apply to have the order rescinded from one year to six months.
“These are important improvements to these bills that are a result of the input from particularly the new members in the Senate,” Latz said.
However, the legislation was substantially the same as what Democrats had considered all year. And there were no significant changes to some of the most controversial aspects of the legislation, particularly the red flag proposal.
A 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.
But the emergency order, which frustrated gun rights groups but was a key part of the bill for many Democrats, was left in place. “The core features of the bills are completely intact,” Latz said.
Democrats had to narrow their agenda — but they didn’t come up empty
Gov. Tim Walz had a broader agenda for guns this year, as did many DFL lawmakers. They proposed things like gun storage regulations, restricting gun magazine capacity and raising the age for when someone can buy a semi-automatic rifle.
Some of those measures were never expected to gain traction. Other policies were snuffed out by lawmakers including Hauschild, including a measure tied to gun storage.
Eventually, Walz and others set their focus on the red flag and background check proposals, honing in on what might actually pass.
Republicans took issue with the gun policy, and how it came up for a floor vote
In the Senate debate, Republicans made a last effort to convince Democrats not to pass the gun regulations.
Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, said he felt the proposed law would violate the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and will only create headaches for law-abiding gun owners rather than stopping people who plan to violate gun laws to commit violence.
And he argued the “emergency” extreme-risk order violates the right to due process and can be abused by people who use the legislation in bad faith to bother, say, an ex-spouse. (The proposal does include a gross misdemeanor penalty for false accusations or petitions for an extreme-risk order meant to harass or threaten someone.)
“It gives the assumption in this bill that someone who goes and makes an order for protection against an individual, your rights are pre-emptively taken away and you have to go get a hearing before a judge to get them back,” Mathews said. “That’s not due process.”
Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, said some police are concerned about their safety if directed to seize guns from an unwilling person, or someone who doesn’t know a judge has ordered them to surrender firearms. And he noted what may be the next frontier of debate over red flag laws: Some county sheriffs might ignore the law.
(Latz said family members and others can petition a judge for an extreme-risk order, not just law enforcement. And he said the state’s association representing sheriffs told him that sheriffs would obey court orders.)
Eichorn also said Democrats won’t stop at trying to remove people’s guns. “Today it’s your guns, tomorrow it’s your Zamboni, or your gas stove, or whatever is decided to be the demon of the day,” he said.
Republicans also objected to how the gun regulations came up for a vote on the Senate floor, part of a large omnibus bill that can be voted on but not amended because of certain parliamentary rules. The conference committee — which met to negotiate the omnibus bill on behalf of the House and Senate — also included no Republicans, and rolled out the final gun regulation policy to the public shortly before the committee vote.
The gun restrictions “have to be tucked into a 500 plus page omnibus bill on a last-minute notice in conference committee,” Mathews said.