Red flag, expanded gun background checks added to larger public safety bill

People in red sit around a rotunda
A conference committee working on a public safety budget bill on Wednesday added language that would expand background checks for gun transfers between private parties, among other changes.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Updated: May 11, 6:35 a.m. | Posted: May 10, 4:19 p.m.

Minnesota lawmakers are set to move ahead with a pair of new gun bills in the final weeks of the legislative session.

A conference committee working on a public safety budget bill on Wednesday added language that would expand background checks for gun transfers between private parties. It also added a provision that some call a red flag bill to allow law enforcement to temporarily take guns from persons believed to be a risk to themselves or to others.

“I know some of the opponents have said will this stop and end all gun violence? It will not,” said Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope of the red flag language. “But it is a tool that can prevent, and it is a tool that if it saves 10 lives, if it saves one life, we have done a job that needs to be done.”

With the legislative deadline nearing and with the DFL holding a narrow majority in the Senate, it’s still not clear that the proposals could pass that chamber. 

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Gun rights groups say the red flag measure is a constitutional infringement because the revocations could occur before the gun owner has a full court hearing. They also note the reservations of local law enforcement who could be put in dangerous situations retrieving guns from people believed to be in crisis already.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee, said small tweaks were made to the red flag bill as an effort to address the concerns of some moderate Democrats.

“The volume that we're seeing right now of homicides and suicides by firearm is dramatically up, compared to what it was when we first started this effort. And at some point, you've got to say, if you want to separate the guns from the people, you have to be able to do that,” Latz said. “If it's not the guns, fine, if it's the people, let's screen the people to see if they are legally eligible to possess the guns. And if they are a danger to themselves or others and certainly an imminent danger, we need to separate them from the guns.”

The conference committee was still working on other parts of the bill Wednesday afternoon. Once they finish, the Senate would vote first. The House has already approved versions of both gun proposals in floor votes this year, and repassage is likely more assured there.

Sen. Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton, said she initially had concerns about the red flag bill, but said the changes were an improvement.

"As I've always said, we have to navigate that line between doing what we need to to address gun violence, while also respecting the rights of the law-abiding gun owners in Minnesota,” Seeberger said. “And I think, if we're not there yet, we're darn close to getting that right."

Two other DFL lawmakers pivotal to the fate of the proposed gun restrictions say they'll study the House-Senate agreement before deciding their votes.

Northern Minnesota first-term Sen. Rob Kupec of Moorhead remains noncommittal on the gun measures.

“More than any other issue, I personally wrestle with this one more than anything else,” Kupec said Wednesday, noting he is most torn over the extreme risk protection orders, which is the formal name for the red flag measure. 

“I see the advantages to some of these things, particularly on the ERPO side. But I also hear from constituents,” he continued. “And I also think about it's that balance of what we're doing and Second Amendment rights. Those are a constant play in my head. I'm a little more probably along on the background checks, I think.”

First-term DFL Sen. Grant Hauschild of Hermantown originally was noncommittal as well, but late Wednesday, Hauschild told Northern News Now that he would vote for the bill.

“I came to the conclusion that we have to do something. There have been far too many school shootings. There has been far too much gun violence in our streets,” he told the station. “And so background checks and the extreme risk protection orders made sense to make sure that we are addressing these where we can.”

Gun owners’ rights groups criticized the move to advance the bills as part of the broader public safety package. And they said they would encourage gun owners in swing districts to make the case to their lawmakers that the provisions should be voted down.

“I think that it would be very difficult for, particularly, these three or four senators, it'd be very difficult for them to return to office if they vote for this bill as it is,” said Rob Doar, senior vice president of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus. “So if they're willing to take that risk, then they're essentially agreeing that they're only going to be one term senators.”

Doar said the red flag bill in particular raises concerns over gun owners’ due process. And he said those believed to be in a crisis should be subject to a 72-hour mental health hold, rather than having their firearms removed.

“That's the core tenet of our criminal justice system, of our court system, is that people have the opportunity to provide their side of the story, and this bill deprives them of that,” he said. “I think that it's only going to exacerbate any existing tensions that were there, you know, assuming that that the order was justified.”

Doar also noted that there were no GOP members on the conference committee. So amendments weren’t offered to the bill and a voice vote, rather than a roll call, was taken.

Both chambers would have to approve the full conference committee report before it could move to the governor’s desk. Gov. Tim Walz has said he supports both gun bills and would sign them into law.