Gun bills move past prior chokepoint in Minnesota Senate

Connie Ortberg, left, holds her sign as women rally at the state capitol.
Connie Ortberg, left, holds her sign as women rally at the Minnesota State Capitol, Feb. 20. For the first time in years, a state Senate committee approved three gun bills on Thursday.
Jim Mone | AP 2018

Gun legislation made a small but significant step forward in the Minnesota Legislature on Thursday, keeping a set of bills moving toward what could be difficult votes for majority party DFLers. 

The Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee had been a previous chokepoint for firearms bills. With a change in partisan control of the Senate, three bills were approved either on party-line or divided voice votes. 

One requires more documentation and permitting around private transactions involving handguns and semi automatic rifles when those transfers aren’t between family members. Another increases prison sentences for those possessing a machine gun or short-barrelled shotgun. The third, a “red flag” proposal, makes it easier to take guns from people deemed to be a threat through what are known as extreme risk protection orders.

DFLers and Republicans on the committee found one area of agreement: Gun violence in Minnesota is a problem. 

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“Gun violence destroys lives, ends lives, destroys families, traumatizes communities and has people often living in fear,” said Committee Chair Ron Latz, DFL-Saint Louis Park, who authored the bills.

“We do recognize the proliferation of gun violence,” said ranking Republican Warren Limmer of Maple Grove.

When it comes to what to do about it, they parted ways.  

A large room with people seated at a curved table
The Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee discussed three gun bills on Thursday.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Latz said his goal is to reduce both gun-involved crimes and suicides. The most recently available state statistics show about seven in 10 gun deaths were suicides.

“These proposals are fashioned in a way intentionally to respect the right of lawful persons to possess their firearms in accordance with the Second Amendment,” Latz said. “And also to find a way to separate firearms from people who are not lawfully in possession of them, or who pose a substantial threat to themselves or others by that possession.”

Similar measures and some others have advanced in the House. Latz said he won’t be moving ahead with a gun and ammunition storage requirement bill that is proceeding in the House.

For years, Senate Republicans successfully held back new restrictions on guns, arguing they intruded on a constitutional right. Now Republicans are in the minority in both chambers. Potential fractures in the DFL ranks will determine what, if anything, advances given a 34-33 margin in the Senate and a 70-64 edge in the House.

The focus is on DFLers in their first term who represent rural or swing districts. Sen. Judy Seeberger of Afton is among them, calling it “a tough line to walk.” 

“I'm looking at my inbox. Right now, I have 536 new emails,” Seeberger said at a morning hearing. “So thank you, for all your contact both pro and against this bill.”

Seeberger voted for the gun transfer rules bill, which passed on a 6-4 vote. That came after she won passage of an amendment to reduce the possible penalty for failing to maintain proper paperwork on a private gun transfer.

“I have read through this bill forward and back so many times to understand the process and what it really does, to understand what it's getting at and what the obligations are going to be on lawful gun owners who want to transfer a pistol or semi automatic military style assault weapon to someone else,” she said.

The gun measures move next to the Senate Finance Committee. It’s unclear if they’ll proceed individually or be folded into a broader public safety bill senators will vote on this spring.

Person speaks inside Capitol
Sen. Warren Limmer
Brian Bakst | MPR News

There was passionate testimony on both ends of the debate.

Thea Williams is part of the Next Steps trauma response program at three large Minneapolis hospitals. The program offers services around gun violence to survivors and families.

“We need your help to limit access to guns for people who are not thinking rationally or who are ineligible to have them,” Williams said. “No proposal fixes everything. There is much to do to fully stop this crisis. But these proposals today will save lives.”

She offered a grim parting thought: “We just don't want to buy any more coffins for children.”

The Reverend Timothy Christopher of Minneapolis, with the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, said he was not convinced the bills will stop gun crimes or head off gang activity that is often a driver of gun violence.

“Why not go after the people who have these guns who are selling these guns? Let's find out where these guns are coming from,” Christopher said. “Why don't we do prevention before these kids get these firearms? Why are we not doing that?”

Leading Minnesota police and prosecutor groups backed the bills, although the Minnesota Sheriffs Association is neutral on the bill to temporarily remove guns if a judge issues an order. The sheriffs said they worried about risks to deputies who would be asked to retrieve them and had concerns over storage.

The bill lays out the threshold for getting a revocation order and a process for the gun owner to quickly appeal to regain possession.

Karl Kaufman, of Spicer, said he’s a lifelong member of the NRA and opposed the bills.

“There are 41 gun laws in Minnesota today,” he said. “There are only 10 states in the United States that have more gun laws than Minnesota right now.”

Gun-rights groups argued lawmakers would make a bigger dent if penalties for gun crimes were tougher and judges levied longer sentences. 

“If you're convicted of a crime in the possession of a firearm, it should be increased mandatory minimums. But that's not what we're looking for here,” said Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville. “This to me is looking to make those of us that have obeying the law all along criminals.”

Dr. Laurel Ries, who spoke for the Minnesota Medical Association and the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, said firearm deaths have become an epidemic.

“I'm confident that people will say that this will not stop all firearm deaths and injury,” she said while speaking for the background check bill. “But just because we can't do everything, doesn't mean we shouldn't do what we can.”

If you or a loved one is experiencing a crisis, call or text 988, Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or text MN to 741741. Talk to trained counselors who care, 24/7/365.

If you or a loved one is at imminent risk, please contact 911 and ask for a Crisis Intervention Team officer.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this story used the incorrect name for Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians.