Gun background checks bill heads to full Senate

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Waiting in line
Attendees of a gun control hearing in February wait with their tickets at the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by DFL Sen. Ron Latz, heard testimony on several gun-related bills.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A bill that would require background checks for nearly all gun buyers will get a vote by the full Minnesota Senate after the Judiciary Committee approved it Thursday night.

The bill cleared the committee on a straight party-line vote: Five DFLers voted for the bill and three Republicans voted against it.

The legislation -- sponsored by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park -- would require background checks for private sales of firearms, not just those by licensed gun dealers. It exempts transactions within families, and passed despite the objections of what Latz characterized as "overly scared" people worried about "potential future encroachments on Second Amendment rights that don't apply in this legislation."

Some law enforcement groups testified in support of the bill. So did Heather Martens, executive director of the group Protect Minnesota, which advocates for gun control. She said a recent trip to a gun show in Anoka demonstrated how state laws need to keep pace with unlicensed dealers offering private sales.

"I spoke to a seller who had a number of pistols and he also had a couple of Uzis, which are assault weapons," Martens said. "I asked him about the Uzi, and he offered that Uzi to me for cash, with no background check."

She also took aim at websites that offer private sales of guns.

"There's no background check required. That is perfectly legal today. That is not right. And it is an easy loophole for people to take advantage of when they have criminal intent," she said.

Those who spoke against the bill said it was vague and arbitrary. Mayor Jim Nash of Waconia described himself to the committee as an average Minnesotan who enjoys hunting on the weekend with friends.

"We don't need more gun control. We have plenty of gun laws. You could place all of them on this table and I think it would strain under the weight," he said. "What we need is criminal control. Let's focus on them. Let's not overly burden the people who are law-abiding, Second Amendment-enjoying citizens."

Chris Rager, of the National Rifle Association, said the legislation would not only be inconvenient for gun buyers, but "delays and complications could lead to increases in violent crime." He said there's no proof more background checks would reduce crime. And he disputed recent polls that showed a majority of Minnesotans support background checks.

"If you would ask people what they thought about having to ban the occasional sale of the firearm between their best friends or their hunting buddies I think you'd get quite a different answer," he said.

Beyond background checks, there are several other provisions in Latz's bill adapted from legislation sponsored by Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen.

Rager supports Ortman's bill, while Ortman herself accused Latz of using her ideas to forward his own agenda.

"He wants to use those provisions to bootstrap very controversial, very divisive proposals that don't have the support of the Senate to try to force us to take provisions that we don't like and don't agree with in order to accomplish what are very basic, fundamental improvements in (affecting) gun crime," she said.

Ortman said she wants Latz to discuss her legislation at another committee meeting. But Latz said he won't do that because he's made a lot of compromises already.

"I think we will never find agreement on the concept of extending background checks to private sales," he said. "That may simply be a question of people having to decide are they going to vote with the clear consensus of the people of Minnesota, or are they going to vote with the NRA and the gun owners who are, I think, overly scared about potential future encroachments on second amendment rights that don't apply in this legislation."

Latz says he has the votes to pass his bill in the Senate. The House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee is scheduled to hear a companion bill next week.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated the Minnesota Sheriff's Association position on Sen. Latz's bill. The organization has not taken any formal position on the bill.

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