Gun rights advocates pack Capitol hearing

Andy Cers of Minneapolis
Gun rights advocate Andy Cers of Minneapolis listened to testimony during a Minnesota house public safety committee hearing on two bills dealing with the gun violence issue at the State Capitol Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 in St. Paul, Minn.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

DFL legislators in St. Paul presented several bills aimed at curbing gun violence at a hearing on Tuesday, and were met by a room filled with gun rights advocates.

One proposal brought before the House Public Safety Committee would increase penalties for people known as straw buyers who buy guns on behalf of people who are forbidden from purchasing them. Another bill would make filing a false report of a lost or missing firearm a more serious crime. A third proposal addressed the idea of a mental health registry.

Outside the hearing room, members of a group called the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance ran a brisk business selling t-shirts to gun supporters.

Inside, many testified the state doesn't need more restrictions on guns. The audience listened quietly for the most part. But there was a brief burst of applause when state Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, said he would introduce an amendment allowing school teachers and staff to carry guns.

Cornish offered his own take on signs posted at schools warning that weapons are banned.

"Under a new sign, I would say, 'You are now entering a killing zone. Run Run Run,'" Cornish said.

Cornish's idea has similarities to a a bill moving though the Legislature in neighboring South Dakota that would allow teachers and other employees to carry guns in schools.

Tony Cornish
Gun rights advocate Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, wears miniature assault-type rifle and handcuffs on his suit coat as he talks with reporters during a break in a Minnesota house public safety committee hearing on two bills dealing with the gun violence issue at the State Capitol Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 in St. Paul, Minn.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

The bill has already passed the House and will be considered soon by the South Dakota Senate. If enacted, each school district would be able to set its own gun policy.

Supporters of the Minnesota legislation say it will give law enforcement officers more power to go after illegal gun trafficking networks. And the proposal has the backing of the Minnesota Sheriff's Association, says the group's executive director, Jim Franklin.

"When somebody does something egregious, we should answer for that and hold them accountable and we think that this does that," he said.

Tim Bender, a deputy sheriff for Beltrami County, testified against the bills.

Bender said he was at the hearing to express his own views, not those of the county. He said lying to police or buying guns for someone else isn't the same as committing a violent crime.

"Making a false report should be left where it is, which is a crime against the administration of justice. Otherwise this would make a person who made a mistake the functional equivalent of a robber or a kidnapper," he said.

Another proposal under review would create a voluntary registry of people who do not want to be allowed to purchase guns. The bill's author, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the registry is meant to be used by people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts. If a person realizes that it's not safe for them to possess a gun, Winkler says law enforcement should have a place to hold that weapon temporarily.

"I frankly have more experience with guns than I have with mental illness, and I know that for a lot of people, my family included, guns are family heirlooms," he said. But in times of crisis, "people aren't ready to make long-term decisions necessarily, even though they have a short-term immediate problem, and this would help get over that hurdle."

Diane Sellgren told the hearing room that a voluntary registry could have prevented her daughter's suicide.

"Please help me make this one senseless act, hundreds of senseless acts, or even thousands of senseless acts mean something so that no parent, no child, no sibling, has to hear their loved one is gone whether the harm is self-inflicted or an act of someone who should not have access to a gun," she said.

The hearing came one day after President Barack Obama used the first visit to Minnesota of his second term to push for a series of gun control measures he wants Congress to approve.

At a stop in north Minneapolis, Obama urged Americans to tell Congress to support the call for new gun laws he made after the school shooting in Connecticut.

"We don't have to agree on everything to agree it's time to do something. That's my main message here today," Obama said.

The president said he choose Minneapolis for the event because the city has taken successful steps to reduce gun violence.

More hearing are scheduled for Tuesday at the Capitol. Committee chair Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, said he expects a vote on the measures by the end of the month.

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