Minn. lawmakers switch to alternate gun plan

Watching gun control hearings
People watched the gun control hearing from an overflow room at the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- Fearing that broader restrictions on guns won't pass, top Minnesota lawmakers on Monday tacked toward new legislation that avoids expanding background checks as their best bet to tighten the state's gun laws.

House Speaker Paul Thissen and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said that a plan backed by gun rights advocates stands a better chance of passing this session even as some who favor tighter gun control hope for more substantive changes. Among other things, the new proposal set to be unveiled Wednesday morning addresses some mental health issues and adds to the parameters of what would disqualify someone from legally owning a gun.

"This represents what we know can get done right now," Thissen said.

It comes after weeks of passionate testimony on both sides of the issue, prompted by mass shootings that stirred a national debate to tackle gun violence.

But the new bill also recognizes the politically difficult terrain for Democrats. The issue has divided the party along geographical lines, making new gun laws like expanded background checks a tough sell for rural members.

The Associated Press reported Friday that the National Rifle Association and Minnesota groups were building support for more modest revisions to the state's gun laws. Rep. Debra Hilstrom, a Brooklyn Center Democrat, was set to unveil the new bill Wednesday. A Senate bill is still in the works.

Overflow crowd
A large crowd watched the gun control hearing from an overflow room at the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Hilstrom's bill is expected to include some measures from the earlier bill, 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 goal is to find what proposal we can pass that would have bipartisan support and geographic balance," Hilstrom said of her bill.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, an Alexandria Republican, said he thinks he and other Senate Republicans will support Hilstrom's bill. He said he favors "dealing with the shoorter, not the gun."

House Public Safety Committee Chairman Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, made universal background checks the heart of his gun violence prevention package, which he unveiled Thursday. "If a legislator wants to substitute universal background checks for an NRA bill, they'll have to be accountable for that," he previously told the AP.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said that proposal likely couldn't get enough votes to pass.

"I do think (Hilstrom's plan) has more bipartisan support than the earlier bills," Bakk said Monday.