Minn. gun owners to back law changes

Displaying opinion on guns
Jon Frasz of Northfield, Minn. displayed his opinion while an overflow crowd waited to enter the gun control hearing at the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on several gun-related bills.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

By KYLE POTTER, Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - In a turnabout, Minnesota gun rights advocates are lining up modest revisions to the state's gun laws as a way to fend off more serious restrictions and give lawmakers the chance to make some progress on a politically charged issue.

Expected to be introduced next week, the bill would be an alternative to a House Democrat's gun violence prevention package that party leaders concede probably lacks the votes to pass. That reflects the dynamic at the Capitol, where gun measures divide legislators more along geographic lines than party lines -- many rural Democrats won't support taking a harder line.

National Rifle Association lobbyist Chris Rager told The Associated Press the alternate bill will have at least 68 House co-sponsors drawn from both parties, "more than enough to show the votes are on the floor'' to pass the bill. A Senate companion is also in the works.

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Tony Cornish
Gun rights advocate Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, 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. Cornish is the author of a gun bill, backed by gun rights advocates, which calls for some limited changes in Minnesota's gun laws.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

The NRA-backed bill is expected to include some measures from the competing legislation, such as provisions that would target so-called "straw purchases'' and help county attorneys crack down on illegal gun owners. Straw purchases involve an eligible person buying a weapon for someone who legally cannot.

The bill also addresses funding for mental health facilities and adds to the parameters of what would disqualify someone from legally owning a gun.

Multiple backers would not turn over a copy of the bill, but described its contents to the AP.

House Public Safety Committee Chairman Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, has included those measures in his further-reaching gun plan he outlined Thursday. His bill also would require background checks for people buying firearms from non-licensed dealers and other private transactions. The measure backed by gun-rights advocates leaves out the expanded background checks.

"There won't be a lot in this bill to fight over."

Paymar could not be reached Friday to comment on the alternate bill.

"There won't be a lot in this bill to fight over,'' said Rep. Tony Cornish, one of the new bill's co-sponsors and the lead Republican in the House Public Safety Committee.

Gun laws are under scrutiny in Congress and statehouses across the country in the wake of the December school shooting in Connecticut.

Minnesota gun rights advocates criticized nearly every gun legislation proposal during numerous days of last month's Minnesota House and Senate hearings. But Joe Olson, president of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, said this bill will deal with "realistic problems'' of gun violence while not infringing on owners' rights.

Sensing the votes weren't there, Minnesota legislators have abandoned efforts to ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Some of the remaining measures, such as universal background checks, are still proving a tough sell in the Legislature, which has Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

"I think it's going to be tough to get the votes to pass that,'' Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said at a news conference Friday. "I know there are a number of rural members that have really no appetite to deal with that background check issue.''

Michael Paymar
State Rep. Michael Paymar, D-St. Paul, chairman of the House public safety committee, talks with reporters after a break in testimony at the State Capitol on two bills dealing with the gun violence issue Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 in St. Paul, Minn. Paymar, is sponsor of the universal background check bill.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he supports background checks for firearm purchases at gun shows, but doesn't think the same should be required of personal transfers. Paymar's bill would exempt only relatives from needing a permit to transfer weapons.

Expanding background checks has been the No. 1 priority for Protect Minnesota, the leading group pushing for updated gun laws. Executive Director Heather Martens said the NRA and other groups are "way out of the mainstream'' in their opposition to background checks.

"The public is strongly in support of background checks for all gun sales,'' she said. "I think to fail to deliver on that would be inexcusable.''

As chair of the House Public Safety Committee, Paymar has the final say on whether the new bill will get a hearing.

Andrew Rothman, also of the Gun Owner's alliance, said they will hold Paymar to his pledge to pass a bill that addresses gun violence.

"If he doesn't want 'nothing' to get done, he can hear a bill that would actually do some good and see if that will pass out of his committee,'' Rothman said.