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Bills that would bar domestic abusers from keeping guns gain support at Minn. Legislature

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Messages of stopping domestic violence and gun violence are displayed during a rally at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. Friday, March 28, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Gun control bills typically don't gain traction in election years, but a couple of proposals are moving through the Legislature this session. Unlike the sweeping proposals that failed last year, the bills this session are more modest and have bipartisan support.

Members of Protect Minnesota and other gun control advocacy groups rallied at the state Capitol Friday to support a bill that, among other things, would allow courts to bar people under domestic violence restraining orders from having guns.

Bills sponsored by Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, and Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, would allow judges to order gun owners subject to such orders to surrender their guns to law enforcement, a licensed gun dealer or an eligible third party.

Heather Martens, president of Protect Minnesota, said there is a wide consensus that the measure is needed.

"It's something that everyone seems to agree on — that domestic abusers should not have firearms," she said.

Gun rights advocates initially opposed the bill. They worried gun owners accused of domestic abuse would not get a chance to defend themselves in court before they had to surrender their firearms. State Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said proponents of the bill heard his concerns and made changes that satisfied his objections.

"You don't want to vote against a bill like this and make it look like you support abuse," said Cornish, a retired police officer. "But what you want to do is make sure it's targeted at the individuals and that's exactly what we did. And we gave them due process to get their guns back."

Minneapolis police officers will remove weapons from a residence at the request of an abuse victim. However, Minneapolis Sgt. Chris Nichols, who investigates felony-level domestic assaults, said his cases rarely involve firearms. Instead, abusers typically beat or choke their victims, he said.

Nichols also said if the accused abuser has a gun in the home, nine times out of 10, that person is already legally prohibited from having it.

Domestic violence t-shirts
T-shirts with messages of domestic violence victims are hung on clotheslines at the Capitol in St. Paul, MInn., Friday, March 28, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

"So a judge can obviously order them to surrender the firearms, but they're not going to because they're already breaking the law," he said. "They're not afraid to disobey a judge's order."

Still, Nichols supports the proposed law. Although it may not affect most of the cases he investigates, Nichols said the measure may have an effect in suburban and rural areas where more people own hunting rifles and shotguns.

Another bill moving through the House and Senate targets convicted domestic abusers.

Sponsored by Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, and Sen. Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna, it would create three domestic violence-related felonies — felony domestic assault, domestic assault by strangulation and 5th degree assault — to the list of "crimes of violence."

Under state law, people convicted of crimes of violence are prohibited from possessing firearms. That makes them subject to harsh penalties if police catch them with guns, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said.

"If this legislation passes, it will be easier to prosecute violators of the prohibition against violent felons carrying guns," Freeman said. "It would be easier to prosecute them. And therefore we think it will be a better deterrent against these people carrying hand guns."

A similar bill backed by Freeman and other county attorneys failed to make it through the Legislature last year. Freeman said legislators found that bill too expensive. According to a legislative fiscal analysis conducted last session, the increased penalties would have increased the need for prison beds.

Gun violence rally
Anita Martinez, yellow shirt, and Dr. Becca Brackett joined others at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. for a rally to end gun violence and domestic violence Friday, March 28, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Freeman said the current proposal drops three existing "crimes of violence" from the category: third-degree burglary, looting and auto theft.

"They're not necessarily the kinds of crimes of personal violence that we want to cover," he said.

The House version of the bill cleared the public safety committee earlier this week on a unanimous voice vote.

Gun rights advocates like Andrew Rothman, president of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, say such legislation is not controversial.

"Of course those kinds of violent crimes should be treated as crimes of violence," he said. "So of course law abiding gun owners have absolutely no problem with that sort of legislation."

Rothman said Democrats appear to have learned a lesson from last session, when they introduced proposals that would have banned semi-automatic assault weapons and would have extended background checks to include private gun sales. He said in an election year for House members, legislators didn't want to alienate a large portion of the electorate.

"Minnesota has two million gun owners," Rothman said. "Minnesota has 165,000 carry permit holders. That's more than twice the size of the teacher's union. That's a pretty powerful demographic."

However, gun control advocates like Martens, of Protect Minnesota, say it's important for people like her to show up at the Capitol and let legislators know there's a strong demographic that supports stricter gun laws.

"Then they feel like, 'oh, I see people here in support of that,'" she said of lawmakers. "And that helps them to understand that it's important to do it and be supported."