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Minn. House eyes limits to gun access, ownership

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Rich Stanek
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek arrives before a packed hearing room to testify before a house public safety committee hearing testimony at the State Capitol on two bills dealing with the gun violence issue Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 in St. Paul, Minn.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

As state lawmakers prepared to weigh more than a dozen gun-control measures that have been introduced in the Legislature, hundreds of spectators gathered to hear the details and comment on the proposals.

When the House Public Safety Committee began taking public testimony on two of the measures Tuesday, the House hearing room was not big enough to hold all the interested spectators, so staff members had to open up another room down the hall to handle the overflow. Of the people who found seats in the hearing room, dozens wore yellow buttons that read "I support the 2nd Amendment" or "Self defense is a human right."

State Rep. Michael Paymar, the committee's chair, asked supporters and opponents of the gun control proposals to refrain from cheering their side or booing the other's.

"It's my hope we can have a respectful debate about this issue, that we can listen to each other, that we can gather the facts, that we can agree to disagree when we must," said Paymar, DFL-St. Paul. "But ultimately pass a bill that the governor will sign."

There was no booing or cheering during the two-hour long discussion of the two bills. The first bill, written by Paymar, includes a provision to require criminal background checks on nearly all sales and transfers of firearms. Currently, the state allows private sellers to sell guns without asking the buyer to submit to a background check. This exemption is often referred to as the 'gun show loophole' because these sales often occur at gun shows.

Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officer Association said it is not a loophole, but a gaping hole.

Sami Rahamim
Sami Rahamim, a 17-year-old Minneapolis high school student who has embraced a public role speaking against gun violence in the months since his father and four others were slain last fall at the family business, listens during a Minnesota house committee hearing testimony at the State Capitol on two bills dealing with the gun violence issue Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 in St. Paul, Minn. Rahamim testified earlier Tuesday before the committee.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

"[The exemption] allows what has been determined to be 40 percent or more of hand gun sales to take place through private sales such as the internet, across your neighbors — across the backyard fence and from the trunks of cars," Flaherty said.

Under Paymar's proposed provision, a private gun sale or transfer will have to be handled by a federally licensed gun dealer. That dealer may also impose a fee of up to $25 to complete the background check.  However, the bill would allow people transferring firearms between family members to skip this step. 

But opponents say this measure and other gun control proposals are based on inaccurate statistics and a misunderstanding of the root causes of gun crime. Andrew Rothman, vice president of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance said the claim that 40 percent of gun sales are carried out without a background check is based on a 20-year-old study and is out of date.  He said stronger background checks won't keep guns out of the hands of people who don't obey the law. 

"Criminals purchase guns from other criminals," Rothman said. "They steal guns. That's because they're criminals. And these criminals that get their guns without a background check, they wouldn't be able to get a gun with a background check. And so they don't. They break the law."

Rothman and other gun control opponents add that most guns used in crimes don't come from gun shows. Instead, they contend, such weapons are either stolen or bought illegally from straw buyers who purchase guns for people who cannot legally buy firearms themselves.

Local and federal law enforcement officials agree many guns used in crimes come from straw buyers. However, Minneapolis police leaders say they support measures to close the private sale loophole. 

The other bill discussed at the hearing focused on improving mental health screening for people who apply for permits to buy or carry a hand gun.  However, some mental health professionals told members of the committee to be cautious when considering who is and who isn't fit to own a firearm.

Patti Bitney Starke, executive director of the Mental Health Consumer Survivor Network, a non-profit advocacy group, worries that people who need help won't get it because they fear they will lose their 2nd Amendment rights. She said that's especially true with military veterans.

"And many, many, many veterans don't access mental health resources because of the stigma that comes with that, and their fear for their loss of their right to bear arms," she said. "I work with those veterans and have for decades."

Starke added that she herself has been treated for mental illness and now leads a productive life.

The hearing ended without testimony from members of the public who were not part of the invited list of speakers. There will be more time for testimony as the hearings continue through this week.

Paymar said he expects a vote on the measures will be held by the end of the month.