Expanded background checks, 'red flag' gun bills earn support, criticism at Minn. Capitol

Sa'Lesha Beeks describes how her mother was killed.
Sa'Lesha Beeks describes how her mother was killed in front of Beeks' daughter during a House committee debate Wednesday about a gun measure that would require background checks on more transactions. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, left.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: 3:49 p.m. | Posted: 4 a.m.

A second major gun bill has cleared a Minnesota House committee after debate that stretched over two days.

Democrats who control the Minnesota House are pressing forward with new gun legislation. The bills would require background checks for private party firearms transfers and set up procedures for police or family members to remove guns from people who are deemed dangerous. The measures face strong opposition from Republicans who have a majority in the state Senate.

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During a five-hour hearing Wednesday evening, a House committee advanced the background checks bill along party lines. On Thursday, the DFL-controlled House Public Safety Committee voted 10 to 7 for the bill that would make it easier for courts to order the revocation of guns.

The bill establishes extreme risk protection orders. But Republicans said it would do little to deal with the underlying mental illness that leads to threats. They also said the measure infringes on rights because guns could be removed prior to any criminal proceeding.

Supporters and opponents of the bills both came out in large numbers, filling the House committee room and an overflow space across the hall.

Among those waiting to get into the hearing on Wednesday was Khadija Sharif, a high school student from Eagan. She said continual news of school shootings throughout her life spurred her to speak out.

Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, (right) comments on a gun control measure.
Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, right, comments on a gun control measure that would require background checks on more transactions.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

"Columbine happened in 1999, and I was born in 2002 and still we've seen mass shooting after mass shooting. Whether it was in Orlando or Parkland last year. So if we could get guns out of the hands of people who would harm other people, that would be ideal," Sharif said.

Purchases of firearms from federally licensed dealers already require background checks. The current proposal would expand those checks to private firearms transfers in Minnesota. Both parties would have to fill out a form that includes the gun's serial number. Giving a gun to your sister, son or any other immediate family member would not require a background check. But giving one to your best friend would.

Firearms enthusiasts say that would erode Minnesotans' Second Amendment rights. Daniel Ward with the African-American Heritage Gun Club said the measure would penalize gun owners who follow the law while doing little to stop violent crime.

"Let's go after the root of the problem. And that is the criminals have the guns. They're going to get the guns through straw purchases. They're going to break into other people's homes. They're going to do whatever they need in order to get what they want. That has absolutely nothing to do with law-abiding gun owners," Ward said.

The other measure in the Minnesota House would allow for "emergency extreme risk protection orders" and a petition process to take guns from those who may pose a threat.

Mary Beth Galloway of Maple Grove told legislators that such a law could have saved the life of her friend Sarah, whose husband fatally shot her before turning the gun on himself.

"I beg you to vote in favor of the red flag bill," Galloway said. "Families need to have this tool in place so that when they see warning signs, they can go to the police for help."

But gun rights supporters say the measure does not respect due process because people who'd be subject to such an order would not have an immediate opportunity to defend themselves in court. Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus Chair Bryan Strawser also argues that taking someone's guns won't stop them from harming themselves or others.

"It leaves behind the person that's at risk. If that's really what we're concerned about — an individual who's threatening, is a danger to themselves or others, a person that probably needs help. We're leaving them behind. But we're taking their firearms and leaving them at home," Strawser said.

At a news conference earlier Wednesday, DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman pledged to pass the bills and send them on to the GOP-controlled state Senate, where Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has said Republicans will not support either bill in its current form.

Hortman says if the Senate won't take up the measures, House Democrats will find another way.

"We will be sending House Files 8 and 9 over to the Senate. And we'll see if they hear those bills in committee as they should, as Minnesotans are demanding that they do, and if they move those bills through across the Senate floor," she said. "If that isn't successful that they go to conference as standalone bills, they will be part of budget negotiations."

If gun legislation is in the mix with spending talks, that could set the stage for a showdown at the end of session this spring.