Gun bills are back at the Capitol, but can they pass this year?

Democrats in the Minnesota Senate rolled out a series of gun control bills on Thursday to expand background checks and block potentially dangerous individuals from getting a gun.

The proposals should look familiar to Minnesotans: they’ve been proposed before at the Capitol, where divided government and a strong gun lobby have thwarted efforts to change state gun laws.

But some political dynamics have shifted at the Capitol, and Democrats say they like their chances this year.

What do the gun control proposals do?

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Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, introduced a proposal that would allow law enforcement and family members to seek a court order temporarily restricting a person’s access to guns when they pose a danger to themselves or others. These are often called “extreme risk” protection orders or “red flag” laws.

He also introduced a bill that would extend criminal background checks to most private sales, gun show markets, and online transactions.  House Democrats introduced similar bills in the first week of session.

Similar measures came up last year and failed to pass -- what’s changed?

Neither bill made it to the House or Senate for a debate last year, but the ground has shifted somewhat after the last election.

Democrats picked up enough seats to win the majority from Republicans in the state House, dramatically increasing the chances of passing gun control bills in that chamber. Most of those victories were in suburban areas, where gun control measures are popular. And voters picked DFL Gov. Tim Walz to replace Mark Dayton, also a Democrat. Walz said he wants to sign a background check and red flag proposal into law this year.

But the Senate is still controlled by the Republicans -- what are the bills chances there?

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has said his caucus is focusing on mental health and school safety funding to address gun violence this year, not passing gun control bills.

But Latz said he believes there are enough votes in the Senate to pass the bills, even if some Republican members are not ready to go public about their support. The challenge for Democrats in the minority is getting a hearing and a floor vote on the bills, Latz said. He said public polling shows Minnesotans broadly support passing expanded background checks, and it would be in Republican's best interest politically to allow them to be heard by legislators. 

"It used to be that this was an issue for people only who were on the other side of this policy issue, the NRA members and the gun owners that felt very, very strongly about Second Amendment rights, and that was their single issue for voting," Latz said. "Now we see that it's become an issue especially in some of these suburban districts, where voters are deciding who they are going to vote for on whether they support background checks and red flag bills. The political dynamics have changed."

Is this a partisan issue?

The issue is as much as geography as party. It cuts more along metro and rural lines, where the realities of gun culture are starkly different.  Last year, suburban Republican Sens. Scott Jensen and Paul Anderson signed on to gun control bills. And not all rural Democrats are on board with the bills this year. Senate DFL Minority Leader Tom Bakk has expressed concerns about a background check bill interfering with family gun transfers.

Where do gun owners stand on these bills?

Second Amendment groups are still adamantly opposed to these changes and had a lobbying day at the Capitol Thursday to try and push back on the effort. Rob Doar, political director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, said hundreds of gun owners signed up to flood legislators offices and express their opposition to the Democrats' proposals.

Daniel Ward, vice president of the African American Heritage Gun Club, said the state already has laws on the books for background checks and preventing dangerous people from buying guns.

"What we aren't doing is we aren't enforcing those laws. Those laws aren't being enforced statewide, those laws are not being enforced in different communities that could be. if you want to expand background checks, how about expanding the enforcement of the laws that are already on the books?" Ward said. "Do your jobs, don't expect more laws to regulate or legislation human behavior is going to curb human behavior."