Gun control advocates aim for tougher laws next session

Waiting in line
Attendees of a gun control hearing wait with their tickets, which were required to enter because of the high public interest, at the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

When Minnesota legislators passed the Public Safety Finance Bill during this year's session, they included measures to shore up the state's criminal background check system and to fund school-safety programs.

However, the legislation falls far short of the kind of measures gun control advocates wanted to see passed -- most notably, expanded background checks for gun sales.

Still, proponents of the bill applaud it, noting several measures designed to prevent keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. For example, the law shortens the amount of time law enforcement and courts have to submit data on felons or other people ineligible to possess firearms to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Police chiefs and county sheriffs across the state use such information when they consider applications for permits to purchase or to carry firearms.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said the centerpiece of the legislation is a measure requiring the state courts system to add the names of people authorities have indefinitely detained, or civilly committed, for mental illness. The law would update 20 years of records, to when the federal government created the background check system.

Mental illness and gun violence
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, second from right, along with other metro area sheriffs and legislators, spoke about concerns regarding mental illness and gun violence Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 at the State Office Building in St. Paul. Stanek said legislators struck the right balance between public safety and the 2nd Amendment.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"In Minnesota, that law took effect in 1994," Stanek said. "Minnesota did not comply or contribute those records until 2010."

State courts officials estimate they will need to add about 67,000 case files to fill the 16-year gap. The legislature approved more than $1 million to pay for the manpower it will take to locate the files and convert the paper records to digital format. Court officials say 12 employees will be assigned to complete the task before the July 1, 2014 deadline.

Stanek, who has long called for the state to fix the background check system before passing any new gun laws, said legislators struck the right balance between public safety and the 2nd Amendment.

"The Second Amendment to the Constitution is not a privilege, it's a right," he said. "And Minnesota policy makers, elected officials -- governor on down -- understand that. And, they can pass public policy, but you cannot infringe on the Second Amendment rights of the citizens of this state or this country."

Gov. Mark Dayton plans to sign the bill, said his spokesperson, Katharine Tinucci. However, Stanek and others say the legislation could have been more extensive.

"The Second Amendment to the Constitution is not a privilege, it's a right... they can pass public policy, but you cannot infringe on the Second Amendment rights of the citizens of this state or this country."

Prosecutors could have used these new laws to reduce gun violence, said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who helped craft a list of prosecutor-friendly measures that didn't make it into the final legislation.

For example, Freeman supported a proposal that would have added more offenses -- like domestic violence by strangulation -- to the list of crimes that disqualify a person from possessing a gun. The proposal would have made it illegal for people prohibited from possessing guns to also possess ammunition.

Freeman said he particularly favored stronger punishments for straw buyers -- or people who legally buy guns and then sell or give them to people who cannot legally possess them. He said straw buyers are often women who buy guns for their boyfriends or husbands.

"If this law would have passed, and it should have, we could have prosecuted her and put pressure on her to get him to plead guilty," Freeman said. "It would be an aiding and abetting type crime."

The bill with such measures was relatively non-controversial and unopposed by gun rights groups. Freeman, a former DFL state legislator, said the proposals would have passed if they were separated from a larger package of laws and voted on separately.

State Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, said the prosecutors' proposals were expensive. Paymar, who spearheaded efforts in the House to pass gun control this session, said he was intent on passing laws focused more on preventing gun violence than on punishing people breaking gun laws.

The public safety bill also included money for school safety programs and in-school mental health assessments. Paymar is glad those measures passed, but he is frustrated that one of his main priorities -- expanded background checks for gun sales -- didn't.

"If you looked at the polling data, 75, 80 percent of Minnesotans supported background checks, as did law enforcement," Paymar said. "Yet, we didn't even get a hearing on the House floor. We didn't even get a vote on the House floor."

Despite the popularity of background checks, the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups convinced lawmakers to oppose the measure, Paymar said.

But he said gun-control supporters shouldn't give up. He notes that it took supporters of another controversial issue -- same-sex marriage -- two years to gain influence with citizens and lawmakers.

Advocates for extended background checks and other gun laws, Paymar said, will have to keep working to gain supporters and come back to the Capitol next year.

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