Twin Cities' top cops criticize bill expanding gun rights

Opponents of gun proposal
State Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, (center) former police chief of St. Paul, opposes a bill at the Capitol which would expand the right to use deadly force in self-defense. He spoke at a news conference Thursday with Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, right, and Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom, left.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

At the State Capitol, opponents of a proposal to expand the right to use deadly force in self-defense are turning to some high-profile police chiefs and county attorneys to help make their case.

They claimed Thursday that the measure would endanger the public and law enforcement officers. But supporters insist the measure is needed to give people firm legal ground to defend themselves and their homes.

With fewer than two weeks left in the legislative session, Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, said he would rather be talking about ways to erase the state's projected $5 billion budget deficit. Instead, the first-term legislator and former St. Paul police chief was trying to derail a bill that he described as "broadly misguided."

Harrington said the measure could put police officers at greater risk when chasing criminals through residential neighborhoods.

"I don't think we should expect our law enforcement, our peace officers, our sheriffs to have to be able to look both ways when they're chasing a bad guy through the back yards," he said. "I don't think this bill will increase public safety at all."

Harrington was joined at a State Capitol news conference by Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan and St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith, who shared similar concerns. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom warned of the legal ramifications of the bill.

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DETAILS OF THE PROPOSAL

Current law allows homeowners to use deadly force in self-defense when there's a reasonable fear of bodily harm or to prevent a felony in the home.

The proposed changes would give homeowners more latitude to use deadly force. They would no longer have to retreat first. It also expands the definition of a home to include garages, cars, decks, tents, boats or overnight accommodations.

Backstrom said the bill eliminates important standards for the use of deadly force.

"This law would in essence allow persons to shoot first and ask questions later whenever they believe they are exposed to substantial harm, regardless of how a reasonable person would have acted under the circumstances," Backstrom said. "That is simply inappropriate and should not be enacted."

BILL PUTS CITIZENS ABOVE CRIMINALS, SUPPORTER SAYS

Supporters of the bill argue that they've included several provisions to protect police officers. They say the bill is needed to prevent Minnesotans from being wrongly prosecuted. Andrew Rothman of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance said the bill puts citizens above criminals.

"The major change is changing the presumption that somebody using self-defense is committing a crime, to that they were justified in doing so. And it shifts the burden of proof from the defender to the criminal," Rothman said.

The bill's chief author in the House, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, accused the police chiefs and county attorneys of putting on a dog and pony show, and not speaking for the majority of law enforcement. Cornish, himself the police chief of Lake Chrystal, insists his bill would not endanger police.

"I've been hit, punched, attacked, cut, shot at twice," Cornish said. "I know the person that is going to whack me is not going to be a homeowner operating under this bill or a personal protection act holder. It's just ridiculous the claims they're making trying to scare people."

Do you support or oppose this bill? Read more about it and join a discussion at MPR's Insight Now.

DAYTON VETO SEEMS LIKELY

Cornish said he sent a letter to Gov. Mark Dayton, asking him not to slam the door on the bill until he sees the final product. But just a few hours later, Dayton sounded like he was ready to slam.

The DFL governor said Minnesotans already have the right to protect themselves and their loved ones, but they should not have more latitude than police have to use their guns.

"I mean that's just the reverse direction in terms of public safety, to let people who are not trained have a greater ability to use deadly force than people who are trained," Dayton said.

Cornish's bill is poised for a vote on the House floor. The Senate companion bill has one more committee stop before reaching the floor.