By Carrie Manner and Eric Killelea, Hibbing Daily Tribune
Eruptions of bravado, emotion and profanity punctuated the highly-anticipated Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee public hearing on soon-to-be proposed gun laws Tuesday, as hundreds of individuals from across the state packed themselves inside the Crown Ballroom in Hibbing.
Sprinkled throughout a mixed audience of suits and flannels, audience members donned red hats with the presidential message of “Make America Great Again,” blue gear from the National Rifle Association and yellow pins displaying the slogan, “Defeat Gun Control.” State Gun Owners Caucus members and U.S. military veterans showed up en masse. They expressed a unified desire for Republican legislators to stand their ground against DFL-led gun control proposals.
A busload of Protect Minnesota activists boasting bright orange T-shirts that read “Minnesotans Against Getting Shot,” and dozens of Minnesota Moms Demand Action volunteers sporting red stood up for the expansion of criminal background checks on gun sales and “red flag” laws.
The groups of people arrived in Hibbing to express their dissent and support for the rights of gun owners as state senators pushed for various gun control measures in the weeks before the 2020 legislative session. They heard the GOP and DFL Senators along with the handful of opponents and proponents discuss six bills in total.
At the tail-end of senator introductions, an audience member hollered out about the absence of the American flag, yelling, “No flag, no respect!” and “You’re shoving this down our throats!”
After, State Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, stood and told the crowd that he does not “view this as a metro versus rural issue” and “there are gun deaths across the state of Minnesota."
Should Minnesota expand background checks?
In two of the more heated debates, Latz, introduced his measures on expanding background checks and the “red flag” laws.
He said that his bill applies only to handguns and “SMSAW” and not hunting rifles. He caught flack from the audience for the acronym and for saying “AR-15” and “military-style, semi automatic weapon.” The laughter led to committee staff reading the Minnesota Statute, 624.712, which uses the term “semi automatic military-style assault weapon.”
Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken spoke on behalf of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association in support of the bill. “Routine background checks are critical to public safety by limiting access to weapons for dangerous people,” he said. “Our current laws in Minnesota need updating.”
St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, who represented himself and the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, also spoke in support of the measure. “We do not want firearms in the hands of people who should not possess them,” he said, adding that he has become “so tired” in 40-plus years as an attorney after showing up to homicide scenes in Duluth and on the Iron Range, where shooters should not have had access to firearms due to criminal or mental health reasons. The bill, he insisted, would be a “non-invasive way to find out ahead of time.”
“This does nothing to compromise the rights of us that lawfully possess firearms...,” Rubin said. He added, “This is going to save lives. I’m convinced.”
Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, the former chief of police in St. Paul, described several recent incidents of gun-related violence, before telling senators on the committee that he too favored the bill. “I don’t think that gun laws alone can solve the problem, but I don’t think that lack of gun laws makes us any safer,” he said. He continued, “How many lives do we have to lose before we say enough is enough and pass universal background checks?”
In opposition, NRA spokesperson Brian Gosch, the former South Dakota House Speaker, said that passing “universal background checks” would not stop criminals from purchasing firearms, nor would it prevent mass shootings or other acts of violence. “You cannot stop evil with that legislation,” he said to applause from the audience.
Dan Rebrovich, a resident of Hibbing who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, said that he does “stand with law enforcement,” but “these laws are not going to help anybody.” He continued, “We don’t want terrible people to have guns — absolutely not — but these laws are not the answer.”
Bryan Strawser, the chair of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, argued that the bill would directly impact hunters since the AR-15 remains “the most popular deer hunting platform in Minnesota.”
During a short committee discussion, Latz said that he was not calling for universal background checks and opined that the proposed language of his measure would be similar to individuals getting a fishing license. He asked the audience to “spare me arguments with registration,” saying the bill would not require people purchasing firearms to register with state government.
Concerning “red flag” gun laws
Between bill hearings, Senate staff presented the American Flag and everyone in the room stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, quelching earlier concerns.
During the introduction of his “red flag” bill, Latz said his measure would allow law enforcement to temporarily remove an individual’s firearm if they are suspected of being a danger to themselves or others. He was once again chastised by the audience when he said that the U.S. Constitution does not grant the “absolute right” for all people to purchase firearms. He noted the constitutional phrase, “without due process of the law,” while people in the audience vehemently booed him.
Duluth Police Chief Tusken appeared for the second time, saying that he did not want to see legislation pass that would infringe on the rights of lawful individuals. The “red flag” bill, he maintained, would help law enforcement in their growing need to serve people living with mental health issues. “We’ve been trying everything we can short of legislation to keep our community safe...,” he said. “We don’t have the tools to always keep our community safe.”
Gosch also spoke again before the committee, saying the bill was vague in its addressing people with mental health issues.
In an impassioned statement, Rev. Tim Christopher, of Minneapolis, explained that the measure would not protect African-American communities as it would white communities. He went on to receive a standing ovation, with his closing remarks, “Until you know how to take the guns away from the thugs, don’t tread on me.”
The hearing on the Iron Range comes after the DFL-controlled House in Minnesota passed gun control measures last year only to watch them get blocked at the hands of Republicans who led the Senate.
During a Moms Demand Action rally in March 2019, Minnesota First Lady Gwen Walz addressed Republicans, who were blocking gun control legislation, reportedly saying, “We are coming,” meaning that DFLers would push for tougher gun restrictions. In response, State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, replied, “Bring it on.” And then last August, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz talked to more than 1,000 people who attended a rally against gun violence in St. Paul. There, he reportedly said the state’s Republicans were an “island of resistance” to proposed gun safety measures — his remarks echoing political stalemates across the nation.
The hearing also comes in the wake of the F.B.I. announcing they arrested several people last week who were connected to Base, a white extremist, anti-government group, including three men who obtained firearms to bring to a gun rally in Richmond, Va.
Last Monday, about 22,000 people — many armed with military-style rifles, handguns and pistols — landed in the state’s capital to protest federal gun control measures being lauded by Democrats. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, declared a state of emergency before the rally. By the day’s end, however, police reported no significant incidents of violence, though they arrested one person accused of illegally wearing a bandanna to cover her face after she was warned not to do so in public.
Voices from the crowd
This week in Hibbing, Shannon Johnson, a resident of Chisago County spoke to the Senate committee in favor of the “red flag” bill. She told the Hibbing Daily Tribune that she is a lifelong gun owner who grew up on her family farm in rural Minnesota. She became involved with Moms Demand Action after her father was shot and killed by a neighbor during a property dispute nearly three years ago. “My dad was unarmed, standing on the road and the neighbor was sitting in his pick-up truck and shot my father,” Johnson said. That was the same day Stand Your Ground and permitless carry bills were introduced into the state Legislature, she noted. “I was just appalled, honestly, seeing our lack of accountability in our gun laws.”
Mary Streufert with Protect Minnesota was another person who spoke before the Senate committee in support of expanded background checks. “In 1991, our daughter was murdered — she was two weeks before her 19th birthday,” Streufert, who is originally from Grand Rapids, told the HDT. “...Our group, Protect Minnesota, in no way is trying to take away anyone’s guns. We’re just trying to keep people who can’t handle the responsibility of a gun — like a felon, or somebody who is mentally ill, or somebody who has been violent in their relationships — to keep them from having guns, and to make sure that those that have guns are stored safely. We don’t want any more gun injuries and deaths.”
Standing near the front of the room was David Brownlee, owner of Dave’s West Howard Auto in Hibbing. He and his brother, Calvin, leaned against the wall, gazing quietly over the congested crowd. Brownlee, a hunter, told the HDT that he is pro gun. “I just want to see what they have to say and just get an idea of what’s happening in the Legislature,” he said. “I just hope that they’re sensible about what they do and don’t take away our rights.”
That sentiment was echoed by Eric Anderson, another gun owner who drove from Zim to Hibbing. Wearing a “Defeat Gun Control” pin on his jacket, the EMT/EMR and Toivola fire chief said, “I believe this is very important because they’re coming up with a lot of bills within the Senate and the House that are pro- or anti-gun and I’m here for the pro-gun side.”
Tuesday marked the second stop for the Senate Judiciary Committee, which visited St. Paul last month during its statewide tour meant to gauge voter opinions on a variety of proposed gun measures.
State Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, helped open the hearing in Hibbing, where he said that “the gun issue is very emotional.” He continued, “Both sides are proud of where they stand.” Minnesota Republican Senate Majority Paul Gazelka also made an appearance, telling the crowd that as a graduate of Virginia High School, he was all for the northern venue. “I thought it was important that we have some of these conversations in greater Minnesota, and I thought, ‘Why not bring it back to my home turf up here on the Range?’”