Senator with NRA tie joins push for new gun laws

Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska
Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, is one of two doctors now serving in the Minnesota Senate after a 26-year absence of a doctor in the institution. He is in his new office on Jan. 4, 2017. Brian Bakst | MPR News 2017

Updated Monday 3 p.m.

A Republican state senator who is a National Rifle Association member added his voice Monday to a push for new gun restrictions in Minnesota.

First-term Sen. Scott Jensen of Chaska appeared at a news conference with Democratic colleagues to announce proposals they hope can advance this legislative session. Fellow Republican freshman, Sen. Paul Anderson of Plymouth, also participated with DFL Sens. Matt Little of Lakeville and Susan Kent of Woodbury.

Jensen, who has a permit to carry, said he is an NRA member but has never accepted campaign money from the group. Anderson said he too is a member of the NRA, although he doesn't own a gun.

One bill requires background checks for all gun sales and transfers, unless it's a gun being passed on to a family member or other limited circumstances. The other would require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms or face punishment if that gun winds up in the wrong hands.

Little said they are a measured response to recent mass shootings.

"Some people will say that this won't stop the next school shooting. But they simply cannot know that. And it just might. People will say this won't solve all gun crimes, and that's true. Of course, no single solution will end all gun violence. That's a ridiculous and cynical standard used by some to prevent change."

Jensen said he supports widening the use of background checks in gun sales in an attempt to prevent ineligible people from obtaining firearms. Jensen said the time has come for universal background checks.

"We're willing to do background checks on Sunday school teachers. When I hire a medical assistant in my clinic I can do a background check there,” Jensen, a medical doctor, said in an interview with MPR News. “But we want to be able to sell guns and handguns and assault rifles and not do background checks because they bought it over the internet or they bought it at a private gun show? That doesn't make any sense."

Jensen said he's willing to take heat for his stance in his conservative district. He said the Legislature's focus should be on achievable solutions rather than measures seen as more politically divisive.

The Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus  panned Jensen as a liar who betrayed his gun-owning voters. They brought up a questionnaire he filled out during the 2016 campaign in which he said he wouldn't back expanded gun background checks.

"I do think he's going to have a hard time seeking re-election if he intends to," said Rob Doar, the political director for the group.

Jensen says where a gun is purchased shouldn't matter and he's changed his mind on the topic of broadened background checks.

"I'm confident we'll have a robust discussion. And it's not going to be just one or two phone calls based on what the phone has been doing this morning. But if I do, que sera."

The Senate is controlled 34-33 by Republicans, but the gun issue doesn't fall neatly along party lines. Some DFLers from rural districts have opposed gun restrictions.

It’s not clear if the plan will get a hearing prior to a March 22 deadline for bills to clear at least one committee.

As the four senators were laying out their plan, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka issued a statement that said the focus should be more on school safety and security than on guns. Gazelka's statement read in part: "We can all agree on increasing the security of school buildings and improving mental health resources for students. There is no time to waste on ideas that don’t work, or have no chance of passing the legislature this year."

Earlier this session, the House Public Safety and Judiciary Committee put a debate on hold over two gun bills, including one that dealt with background checks. That bill had nearly three dozen DFL sponsors and one Republican co-sponsor, Edina Rep. Dario Anselmo.

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