by CHRIS ROGERS
Minnesota lawmakers got close to passing two gun control measures this spring. Now those proposals appear to be dead in the water after Republican lawmakers blocked them last week. Local legislators’ stance on the proposals varied from moderate support to adamant opposition.
The first proposal would expand the kind of firearm transfers that require a background check. The second would create a system for law enforcement to require citizens, whom a judge deems to be a danger to themselves or others, to temporarily surrender their firearms. The DFL-led Minnesota House passed both policies as part of a catch-all public safety bill in late April. The Republican-led Senate rejected the proposals. A conference committee of 10 lawmakers from both chambers and both parties was tasked with reconciling the House and Senate’s differences. In a 5-5 vote last week, Republican members voted to block the gun control measures from being included in a final bill.
“It’s not going to go anywhere. That’s the bottomline,” Representative Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona) explained.
Expanded background checks
The majority of firearms are sold through licensed dealers, and federal law currently requires dealers to conduct background checks before selling any firearm. However, background checks are not currently required for sales or transfers between individuals, including firearms sold at gun shows or the gift of a gun between friends.
The Democratic proposal would require background checks for private sales of pistols and “military-style assault rifles.” Transfers of other rifles and shotguns would not need a background check. Minnesota law currently defines “military-style assault rifles” by essentially listing a slew of different gun models, such as AR-15s. Immediate family members would be allowed to give or sell guns to each other without a permit, and people would be allowed to loan guns while hunting or competing in shooting sports.
Under the bill, people wishing to buy a pistol or assault rifle would need to apply for a free permit to purchase, go through a background check, and then could use that permit to purchase any number of weapons. The permits would be valid for one year. Sellers would be required to keep a copy of the buyer’s permit for 20 years, and if there was ever an investigation into the sale, the seller would need to produce the paperwork or face a potential gross misdemeanor charge.
“The bottom line … is that this is something that responsible gun owners in many cases already do,” Representative Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul) said. “They would not give their guns to someone else without knowing the person receiving it is actually eligible to receive it. It is time, members, to require that all firearm owners live up to that same standard.”
In an interview last fall, Winona Sportsmen’s Club President Dwight Keenan said he had no problem with universal background checks. Some local Friends of the National Rifle Association (NRA) members were strongly opposed to mandating universal background checks, but said that, if they, personally, were selling a gun, they would want to go through a licensed dealer and have a background check conducted.
Local NRA members and Republican lawmakers questioned whether requiring background checks would really reduce gun violence. Many criminals get guns through the black market or use “straw sales” to circumvent the current background check process at dealers, Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus Political Director Rob Doar told legislators.
Pointing to a John Hopkins University study that found murder rates increased by 14 percent and firearm homicides rose by 25 percent in Missouri after that state repealed background check legislation, Senator Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park) argued, “It’d be almost grossly negligent not to take a step like this that would have such a great impact on gun deaths.”
Referencing the numerous mass shootings at schools across the country, a Winona woman urged Senator Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) at a recent town hall, “I hope that as Minnesotans we can support more gun control … so that never has to happen to our kids, because we all know there have been threats on Winona schools.”
Republican conference committee members criticized the background-check proposal because it would require longtime friends or neighbors to go through background checks before loaning out a pistol or assault rifle. “That’s a problem I’m having with these bills that are coming up right now. We’re treating these folks like they all have the potential of becoming criminals … In my neck of the woods, this happens all the time where folks are transferring guns all the time. ’Why don’t you take my gun up into the woods?’” Senator Mark Johnson (R-East Grand Forks) said. “We’re treating everybody the same under this, and I think government becoming intrusive and being able to get involved in these private sales — it’s not always a criminal on the corner … It’s neighbors. It’s friends,” Johnson stated.
The authors of this bill had to draw the line somewhere, Latz said, adding, “I don’t know how you define a friend or a neighbor in statute.” Just because someone is a nice neighbor does not mean they are legally eligible to possess a firearm, he continued. “I don’t know what my neighbor’s criminal background is, if anything, and they may not see fit to tell me when they move into the neighborhood, no matter how good of friends we become, that 30 years ago, they were convicted of domestic assault using a firearm,” Latz stated.
A coalition of Minnesota chiefs of police, sheriffs, county attorneys, and rank-and-file law enforcement officers endorsed the background-check proposal. Opponents expressed concern that the legislation would give law enforcement agencies too much leeway to deny purchase permits without good cause.
Opponents fear a registry of gun owners
Opponents — including Representative Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) and Senator Miller — also claim that the background-check proposal would create a government registry of gun owners that could someday be abused. There is a common thread with murderous authoritarian regimes throughout history, Drazkowski said. “The first thing they did in order to put the population in a vulnerable position was they stripped them of their firearms,” he stated.
Under the bill, the state government would keep records of everyone who had applied for permits to purchase, but the government would not receive records of the actual sales or how many weapons were purchased. Unless there was an investigation into a specific sale, those sale records would stay in the hands of private citizens, not the government, Pinto noted. Existing federal law already requires background checks at licensed dealers, Latz pointed out, adding, “It doesn’t seem like we’re creating anything new.”
Still, it is a step toward a registry, Drazkowski argued. “The natural progression of people who want to take away firearms is they start with background checks, background checks lead to registration … and the next step is confiscation,” he asserted.
If background checks lead to registries, should federal requirements for background checks at firearm dealers be repealed? In an ideal world, yes, Drazkowski answered.
Dubbed “extreme risk protection orders,” the proposed red-flag law would empower law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to petition a judge to temporarily take a person’s guns away if the judge ruled that person was a danger to the themselves or others. The proposal would set up a two-step system. In cases where law enforcement officials believed there was an imminent threat of violence, they could petition a judge in a secret, emergency hearing to take away a person’s firearms for no more than 14 days. Within 14 days, a second court hearing must be held, giving the subject a chance to hear the case against them and present their own argument. If, after that hearing, a judge ruled the person was a threat to themselves or others, the judge could issue an order removing the guns for up to two years. Subjects would have the option to surrender their guns to law enforcement or transfer them to a licensed firearms dealer.
In interviews last fall, some local gun enthusiasts had serious concerns about red-flag laws. Although Keenan was fine with background checks, he said of red-flag laws, “I would not be happy if they came and seized it because someone said I did something and I didn’t, and now I’m guilty until proven innocent.”
The authors of the bill took some steps to try to alleviate that concern. In the latest version of the bill, only law enforcement officials can petition a judge, not family members or anyone else, and false reports to law enforcement would be subject to criminal penalties.
Still, Republicans and gun rights advocates were critical of what they described as a lack of due process for gun owners. There are no clear guidelines for when taking away a person’s guns is justified, Senator Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove) said, adding that the act of trying to seize guns could itself lead to violence.
“The current situation is not good either,” Bloomington, Minn., Police Chief Jeff Potts responded. Too often, officers are responding after a firearm has already been used in deadly violence or suicide; this legislation would allow officers to be more proactive, he argued. “We also know in looking at some of these mass shootings that these people were also very unstable and there were some flags there that could have potentially avoided those situations were there to be laws like this in place,” he stated.
Where local legislators stand
Pelowski voted for the public safety bill that included the two gun control measures along with a host of other legislation. Asked whether he supported the proposed gun safety policies, Pelowski responded, “I don’t mind supporting the fact that we should look at doing something, and some of these things may do something, but I’m not sure that you can pass a law that addresses what’s going on here.”
Pelowski explained, “I think [gun violence] is a societal problem that goes beyond passing a law. Sometimes people think if you pass a law, there’s always a law to fix everything … Laws don’t solve every problem. Society has to solve it.” He added, “[These bills] may help a little bit, but it’s going to have to be a much broader, deeper discussion and change.”
All of these gun control proposals are unconstitutional, Drazkowski said. “The fundamental problem is they infringe on our Second Amendment rights. The Second Amendment ends with the words ‘shall not be infringed,’ period.” Drazkowski voted against the gun control measures and said he tried to introduce legislation to expand gun rights — including the right to concealed carry without a permit, a stand-your-ground provision, and a lifetime permit to carry — but all three were voted down.
Citing a recent U.S. Department of Justice survey that over 40 percent of guns used in crimes were stolen or obtained through the black market and 25 percent were obtained through a family or friend, Senator Mike Goggin (R-Red Wing) argued background checks would simply burden law-abiding citizen with more rules without doing anything to address illicit firearm sales. “They’re not going to do any good,” Goggin said.
These gun control proposals are highly controversial and unpopular, Miller said. “I’ve heard from folks who are supportive of the gun control proposals, but the majority of constituents I’m hearing from are opposed,” he stated. Minnesota law already has several provisions that could be used to intervene in red-flag situations, such as 72-hour holds, in which unstable people may be temporarily held for mental health evaluation, and mandatory arrests in domestic violence cases, Miller said. “I believe common ground could be reached if the focus shifted away from putting more restrictions on law-abiding citizens and instead focused on enforcing current laws and pushing for stronger penalties for those who break the law. There is also strong bipartisan support to provide more funding for mental health resources, as well as more funding to help make our schools safer and more secure,” he stated.