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Gun law hearing expected to draw big crowd

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March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C.
People at the March For Our Lives rally against gun violence in Washington, D.C., in March 2018.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images 2018

Hundreds of people passionate about guns — either owning them or restricting them — are expected to be at the state Capitol Wednesday as a Minnesota House committee debates a pair of gun measures.

Jessica DeWeerth plans to arrive for the hearing hours early. The 35-year-old from Minneapolis is part of Moms Demand Action, a group that wants stricter gun laws. She said she felt compelled to get involved on behalf of her two young sons.

"Marching in the streets about gun violence prevention is not something that I want them to have to do in their future when we can do something about it right now that can improve safety and prevent gun violence in Minnesota," DeWeerth said.

Patrick Watson will be there, too. The 42-year-old from Mendota Heights is a member of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus. He hunts, visits shooting ranges and considers himself a gun enthusiast. He's also a DFLer who sees both measures before the Democratic-led House Public Safety Committee as flawed.

"Does this really fit or is this simply a political win for some big out-of-state political machine? I can't help but feel that's what it is," Watson said. "I don't know that it's a good fit for Minnesota."

Watson and DeWeerth agree the committee is likely to approve the proposals, but that doesn't necessarily mean they will become law. Familiar obstacles remain, including insistence from Senate Republican leaders that the focus on preventing tragic incidents be elsewhere.

Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, sponsored the bill to require background checks on more transactions, including private-party gun sales.

"We can see this energy of people saying, 'We have got to be able to get movement on this,'" Pinto said. "I think that has only built from last year. And in a way the election of 2018 was a real milestone for sending that message."

A similar bill was shelved last year by a Republican-led committee. Pinto made some revisions since then to change how potential buyers access a permit. But opponents say it would still present too many bureaucratic hurdles for legally eligible gun buyers and sellers.

The other bill often called red-flag legislation establishes what would be known as "extreme risk protection orders." It spells out a process for police or family members to petition for a court order to take guns away from someone deemed dangerous.

The temporary revocation orders are a way to head off imminent threats of gun violence, said Public Safety Committee Chair Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul.

"It seems logical that if law enforcement is armed with that kind of information and if courts are armed with it, they can find an appropriate way to intervene or at least be aware," he said.

Fellow committee member Rep. Marion O'Neill, R-Maple Lake, argued the orders would infringe on a core constitutional right.

"We don't normally hold people responsible for things they haven't actually been convicted of. I have a problem with that," said O'Neill. She added that there already are procedures involving hospitalization to deal with people in emotional distress.

"If someone is a danger to themselves or others, we can put them on a 72-hour hold," she said. "So instead of removing guns, you can remove a person from the guns, from the hammers, from the knives, from the ropes and all the things they would hurt themselves or others with. We already have that mechanism."

Regardless of what happens at the House meeting, there are no hearings set in the Republican-led Senate on gun measures.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said some of his Republican members would like to expand self-defense laws or provide a constitutional right to carry a firearm. But he knows those wouldn't prevail in the House.

Referring to shootings at Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minn., in 2003 and Red Lake Senior High School in Red Lake, Minn., in 2005, Gazelka said both sides should focus on common goals of fortifying school buildings and improving mental health counseling for young people.

"It does address the gun issue, but it also addresses teen suicide," he said. "We have 50 teen suicides every year. We have had two [school] gun shootings in Minnesota in the last 50 years. It's a big deal anytime it happens, but how about those 50 suicides every single year?"

The gun debate splits as much — or more — along geographic lines than party lines. Some suburban Republican senators have backed restrictive gun proposals, but rural Democrats may not vote for new restrictions.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, is not yet sold on the red-flag bill, citing private conversations with law enforcement officials.

"They've expressed some real concerns about being put kind of in harm's way to maybe go to a home and have to deal with somebody who maybe shouldn't have a firearm and tell them to surrender them," he said. "I do think there is a conversation we're going to have to have with the law enforcement community before some of these things can really start to move forward."