HIBBING, Minn. — Hundreds of gun owners and a couple of dozen gun control advocates packed the Crown Ballroom on Tuesday, Jan. 21, for a hearing on a slate of contentious firearm and public safety proposals.
It was the first time members of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee took up the bills. Attendees offered a smattering of insults along with their opinions during the five-hour hearing.
At hand was a range of bills, two of which would beef up background checks for some gun sales and transfers and allow law enforcement to remove firearms if someone poses a danger to himself or others. Two others would allow authorized firearm owners to carry in public without a permit and make justified the use of deadly force, exercised in efforts to defend one's self or others against real or perceived threats.
The debate gave hints as to what might lie ahead for the proposals in the divided Legislature. GOP Senate leaders highlighted their concerns about gun control measures to cheers of support from the audience and delivered testimony on other bills aiming to expand gun rights.
Senate Republican leaders said they opted to hold the hearing after years of "dogging" from all sides of the issue and they chose Hibbing because they wanted rural constituents to have a stronger voice in the debate.
"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 on the Range," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said. "We thought it was appropriate that every bill be presented here."
Democrats on the panel and elsewhere, as well as gun control advocates, said they were glad to get different input, but they wondered whether there was some ulterior motive to holding the discussions outside the capital city at what could be the bills' only hearing.
"It’s an election year. They’re trying to find reasons to divide us. There’s a reason they’re in Hibbing today," Gov. Tim Walz said at an unrelated news conference at the Capitol. "The idea that people in Greater Minnesota don’t care about gun safety, or people in the Twin Cities don’t care about Second Amendment rights, is just another way to divide us, and it’s a fallacy. It’s untrue."
Throughout the hearing, supporters and opponents of each of the bills aimed to balance the constitutional rights of firearm owners against the safety of the public and of those individuals. The hundreds that packed the Crown Ballroom were vocal in their frustration that the proposals were up for consideration and that they weren't getting enough chance to weigh in.
The hearing seemed to begin on shaky ground, as attendees yelled out frustration about the ballroom in downtown Hibbing not displaying an American flag behind senators on the panel.
"No flag, no respect," an angry attendee yelled out. The man continued yelling in frustration that the firearm discussions were being "shoved down the throats" of locals.
At one point the panel's chair, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, threatened to end the hearing early if attendees were unable to be respectful to lawmakers and those testifying, saying he wouldn't continue in "the face of the mob."
Ultimately, the committee continued its testimony. And Limmer said Senate leaders could take up the bills when the Legislature returns for the 2020 legislative session next month.
Gun control advocates, law enforcement groups and county attorneys supported the measures aimed at increasing background checks and the so-called red-flag bill. They said the plans would help prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands and could prevent firearm violence by those who might be in a mental health crisis.
"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," Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington told the senators. “We have to be united in our willingness to try."
Dan Rebrovich of Hibbing testified against the bill proposing enhanced background checks for more firearm transfers, saying lawmakers were proposing solutions in search of problems. He and other gun owners and gun rights advocates said criminals would still obtain weapons even with tougher background checks.
"These laws are just not the answer you’re looking for," Rebrovich said. “We’re Americans; we’re Minnesotans — no thank you."
Lawmakers pushing the four contentious proposals for months had hoped to get the bills heard in committee. And they turned out groups of supporters to the Capitol to help push the proposals to the forefront.
The committee also considered two other measures aimed at requiring courts to set compliance hearings to ensure firearms are removed from those who violate abuse, assault and harassment laws and to make it a felony to transfer firearms to someone who has broken the law and isn't eligible to obtain them.