A state House panel voted Wednesday to repeal Minnesota's gun permit requirement, despite the objections of police officials who argued the repeal would put guns in the hands of mentally unstable criminals.
The 10-7 vote in the House public safety committee was divided along party lines. DFL lawmakers denounced the proposed change as a threat to public safety, while Republicans said it would reduce bureaucracy and save money.
If the law is changed, local law enforcement officials would no longer conduct background checks of people who applied for a permit to buy a pistol or a semiautomatic military-style assault weapon.
Instead, law enforcement would rely solely on a national database of information about violent crimes, court-imposed mental health and chemical dependency treatment, and other matters that prevent a person from obtaining a gun permit.
Republican lawmakers argued the state requirement duplicates federal gun laws and wastes money. The bill's author, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said the national database is effective in identifying people who are not allowed to own a weapon.
"It works very well at protecting not only our state, but the other 38 states in the U.S. that do not have this redundant, duplicative statute in place that really costs a lot of money for local units of government," Drazkowski said.
Members of police associations who testified against the legislation said the repeal would pose a risk to officer safety.
"We have just seen too many times the senseless shootings and firearm-related deaths, and so for us not to exhaust all of our efforts on these investigations really we'd be derelict of our duties," said Dennis Flaherty, the executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.
Flaherty said the national database, called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, is incomplete. Many states, he said, have not provided basic information to the database.
"I think the bottom line is that someday that federal system may be able to take the place of our local efforts, but not today," Flaherty said. "We're not there yet."
The FBI launched the federal database in 1998 to comply with the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. The database has been used more than 100 million times in the last decade and led to more than 700,000 gun permit denials, according to the FBI's website.
Drazkowski dismissed concerns by opponents of the measure who argued that the recent shooting in Tucson, Ariz., showed the United States needs tougher gun laws.
"I think the public very much understands that ... some person who is mentally unstable in Tucson or any other town has nothing to do with us setting common sense policy in Minnesota," he said.
Drazkowski said he expects the state Legislature to pass the bill, which would then be sent to Gov. Mark Dayton for consideration.