Gun control efforts in Minn. face cloudy future

Recovered guns
In this file photo from Jan. 12, 2011, Minneapolis Police Sgt. William Palmer displays a rifle that had the stock removed for easier concealment at a secure facility in the Twin Cities metro area.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

In the wake of the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Connecticut last week, some lawmakers at the Minnesota Capitol say they're considering changing state law to make it tougher to buy guns.

But lawmakers disagree over what should be done, and some key policy makers are wondering if they have the constitutional authority to do anything at all.

Lawmakers typically take some of their cues from the policy agenda set forward by the governor. That may be even more true this year because Gov. Mark Dayton will have a Legislature controlled by fellow Democrats in January. But when it comes to the issue of guns, Dayton isn't sure the state can tighten regulations.

"At this point, I don't think we have an option under the 2nd Amendment to do what some people are advocating," the governor said.

Dayton said he believes any effort to restrict access to guns would likely face a court challenge.

"My reading of the Constitution is that it provides a complete permission for any law-abiding citizen to possess firearms, whichever ones that he or she chooses, and the ammunition to go with that," he said.

However, Dayton said he is willing to discuss gun control options.

Related: Deep divisions in Minn's DC delegation, too

It's likely that discussion will occur soon as state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, intends to hold hearings on gun control issues when he takes over as chair of the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee.

As an example of the measures that might be on the table, Dibble said he wants background checks on people who buy firearms at gun shows.

"I think it's time to open up this conversation to take a look at what we're doing," Dibble said. "The president said, 'Are we doing enough as a community and a nation to keep our kids safe?' and the answer is clearly no."

But state Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, said he doesn't believe any new law would have stopped recent mass shootings in Connecticut, Aurora, Colo., and elsewhere.

Police in Connecticut say 20-year-old Adam Lanza also shot his mother before forcing his way into the school. He shot himself as officers arrived.

Rep. Tony Cornish
Rep. Tony Cornish is a Republican and chair of the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance committee.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

"These people are going to get guns through burglaries, through robberies, somewhere," Cornish said. "Psychos like this guy in Connecticut are going to get them and we have to defend ourselves."

While some are advocating for greater restrictions on guns, Cornish is going the other way. He said he'll introduce legislation that would allow teachers to carry guns in school. Creating a gun-free zone in schools, Cornish said, only puts children in a more vulnerable position.

"If we had teachers with firearms, as scary as it may sounds to some, even if somebody got injured in the crossfire, balance that against 20- some kids getting killed," he said. "I don't think it's a close balance. I think we need to err on the side of the teachers and let them defend the students."

Cornish said a similar measure is already on the books in Texas.

Dayton dismissed Cornish's proposal, saying it "defies common sense."

Gun control issues do not break down along party lines in the State Capitol, so DFL control of the Legislature does not necessarily guarantee any meaningful changes.

One of the biggest supporters of gun control in the Legislature, state Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St.Paul, said he's not confident of his chances this year. He said special interests have repeatedly bottled up his efforts in past years.

"The National Rifle Association has put the fear of God into most legislators of both parties, and consequently any time there is a suggestion or a bill or an opportunity for discussion about sensible gun laws, they are immediately struck down," he said.

Paymar is hopeful the shootings in Connecticut will prompt more people to speak out in favor of gun control legislation.

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