ST. PAUL - A state Senate hearing chamber’s ample seat capacity proved barely adequate Tuesday as lawmakers received a double earful of input on a pair of gun control bills introduced - but unlikely to pass - this year.
Police chiefs and gun control advocates called the bills common-sense safety measures that would save lives, while those opposed said they would do little but create added fees and were a step on a “slippery slope” toward draconian government oversight.
State Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, chairs the judiciary committee and sponsored both bills. He acknowledged during the hearing that neither bill stood a chance this year, given opposition to any gun control measures in the Republican-controlled House. In turn, opponents called the hearing - coinciding with a rally of hundreds of gun control advocates at the Capitol Tuesday - planned political theater.
But Latz said regardless of the bills’ fate this year, it was important to continue discussion on the issue.
Latz’s first bill, calling for universal background checks for all gun buyers, closes a “loophole” for gun show sales and intrastate sales online, using platforms such as Craigslist and Armslist - which currently require no background check. The bill has some exceptions, such as exchanges between immediate family members.
If neither the buyer nor seller is a federally licensed dealer, they’re both required to appear before one; that dealer is then required to conduct the check, and fill out and keep a record of the transaction on a federal form.
New Hope Police Chief Tim Fournier - the first to testify - presented the case of Raymond Kmetz, who last year entered New Hope’s city hall and fired a shotgun, injuring an officer before being fatally shot himself.
But Fournier was challenged by Rep. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, over whether a background check bill would have made any difference, given that the person who bought Kmetz’s guns - a “straw buyer” - could have passed a check anyway.
Several testifiers referenced a study conducted by Everytown for Gun Safety, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and the FBI, that found 46 percent fewer women are shot by intimate partners in states where background checks had passed, and 48 percent fewer law enforcement officers shot.
Gun rights advocates noted there has yet to be statistics presented on whether all incidents in those categories decreased - whether, for example, domestic violence rates decreased overall, as opposed to just those related to guns - the argument being that a switch in the method solved nothing.
Gun rights advocates also pointed to fees - in one instance, $50 for a background check - that would be incurred by private gun buyers.
After hearing much of the testimony, Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, replied that “I just find the arguments (by gun rights advocates) really failing to understand or acknowledge the underbelly that occurs here - what guns are capable of doing.”
State Rep. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, flat-out asked opponents what they were afraid of.
“I’m afraid of you,” gun rights advocate Richard Dian replied during public testimony, prompting the session’s sole round of public applause. “This is another centimeter of movement away from the Constitution.”
Latz replied that the constitutionality of background checks have already been established by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Latz’s second bill was also met with skepticism by some gun rights advocates.
The bill aims to create a “gun violence protective order,” which would prevent an individual from possessing a gun based on a petition from family members or police.
It would require proof as to why the subject of the order “poses a significant danger of bodily injury to self or to other persons by possessing a firearm,” and why other alternatives wouldn’t work.
Proponents said the bill would allow families a means to protect their loved ones from what they believed to be clear and present dangers, while some gun rights advocates said it was ripe for abuse, and made property seizures uncomfortably easy.
The basis of such an order could be based on a subject’s history of threats or violence, or the “reckless use, display, or brandishing” of a gun.
Prior felony arrests would be considered, even if there was no conviction. As for convictions, judges could consider violent misdemeanors, or drug- and alcohol-related offenses if there was evidence the individual was not recovering.
If the order is granted, the individual would have to transfer his or her guns to a licensed dealer or law enforcement agency, who could charge a fee for storage. The order would last between six months and two years, but could be extended, and violating it would be a misdemeanor.
Of particular concern to gun rights advocates was the fact that a separate emergency order could also be issued “ex-parte,” meaning the subject would not be required to be present to fight it. Such an order could last only for two weeks, rather than months, and the subject could demand a later hearing to challenge it.
Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell, speaking on behalf of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association in favor of the bill, said such orders were meant to be rare and short-term, giving people “an opportunity to stabilize,” rather than a more restrictive civil commitment order.
By the end of the session, Latz declared that some common ground had been established. In one instance, Joe Olson, chair of the Minnesota Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, said he would personally support a background check as long as it didn’t link to - or record - specific information about gun sales.
But Latz’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who chairs the public safety committee, reiterated this week that no gun bill will be heard in his committee this session.
“This is a dog and pony show that everybody knows is going nowhere,” Cornish said. “If there was a gun hearing, it would be defeated on the (House) floor with Democratic votes.”
Earlier this week, Americans for Responsible Solutions - a gun control advocacy group founded in part by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords - released the results of a telephone poll of 600 registered Minnesotan voters, asking whether respondents “favor or oppose requiring criminal background checks on all gun sales, including those sold online and at gun shows.”
The poll found that 73 percent “strongly favored” the idea statewide, including 56 percent of Republicans polled. Another 13 percent of all statewide respondents “somewhat favored” the idea.
But an online survey conducted this year by the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus of 891 gun owners randomly selected from their mailing list found that 80.4 percent were “strongly opposed” to legislation requiring “universal background checks required for most firearms transfers,” with another 11.4 percent “opposed.”