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Minnesota Democrats hope to use momentum to address gun safety

Hundreds of people jammed into the Minnesota Capitol rotunda Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, to urge state lawmakers to pass bills to prevent gun violence. About 1,000 people filled the rotunda and nearby areas. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 2
Minnesota state Sen. Warren Limmer of Maple Grove is a key Republican in the debate on gun laws. Forum News Service file photo2 / 2
ST. PAUL -- Emboldened by solid gains on election night, Minnesota Democrats plan to push hard for stricter gun laws at the Capitol this year.

Expanding criminal background checks for sales and creating “red flag” protective orders will be near the top of their agenda when they take control of the House on Jan. 8. Democratic Gov.-elect Tim Walz, a gun owner once backed by the National Rifle Association also supports the proposals.

A Republican-led Senate, though, could stand in the way.

After mass shootings at schools in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas, a number of states strengthened their gun laws in 2018. In Minnesota, Republicans who then controlled the House and Senate refused to bring such efforts to a vote.

The House power flip isn’t the only thing that is different. This time the entire Senate will be up for election in 2020.

“There’s enormous public pressure to do something,” said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. That’s especially true for Senate Republicans in suburbs that swung for Democrats in the House this past election.

“If (Republicans) completely stop these bills from going anywhere … this becomes ammunition for the Democrats in 2020,” Schultz said.

Two proposals

While lawmakers may consider a slew of gun-control bills this year, Democrats will be “laser-focused” on creating a red flag law and improving background checks, said state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul.

Here’s what the proposals could look like:

Red flag protective orders: This law would allow police or family members to petition a court to temporarily seize someone’s guns if they are deemed a threat.

Strengthening background checks: Federally licensed gun dealers are already required to run background checks before a sale, but that mandate does not extend to private sellers. In Minnesota, criminal background checks are not required for the sale or transfer of guns between unlicensed parties.

Mariani, who will chair the House public safety committee, said Democrats want to close the loophole in private sales. He did not say if they will push for background checks on all gun transactions.

Heated debate

No matter the proposal, lawmakers will get an earful from constituents on both sides of the gun debate.

Supporters of stricter gun laws and gun-rights advocates were a fixture at the state Capitol last session. Thousands of high school students walked out of class and marched to the Capitol, while demonstrators wearing blaze orange were often seen on the front steps and in the Rotunda.

The Minnesota Chapter of Moms Demand Action will make a big lobbying push for gun control. The women will welcome lawmakers back with a rally on the first day of session.

Their top priorities? Red flag laws and criminal background checks on all gun sales.

“We’re also going to be present throughout session because it’s time for common-sense gun reform,” said Rachel Bartleson, the group’s state legislative lead.

On the other side of the debate is the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, which will push back on the two proposals. Members of the group will fill the Capitol for a lobbying day Jan. 24 and a rally in the Rotunda in February.

Bryan Strawser, the group’s chairman, said expanded background checks would place an “undue burden” on law-abiding gun owners.

“We don’t believe, and the data doesn’t show, that criminals are obtaining their firearms through private sales,” Strawser said. They are stealing the guns or having someone else buy them, he adds.

No clear path

With a 16-seat majority in the House, Democrats have the votes to pass gun-control bills with some room for dissent.

Strawser, though, is optimistic that Republicans will be able to block the measures in the Senate, where they hold a one-seat majority.

The man to watch is Sen. Warren Limmer. The Republican from Maple Grove chaired the judiciary and public safety committee last year and refused to give gun-control bills a hearing. He will head the same panel this year.

Limmer could not be reached for comment. Instead, he issued a statement: “Gun safety will continue to be a topic of discussion at the Capitol next session. … With divided government, any new solutions will need to have wide bipartisan support to be seriously considered.”

Sen. Ron Latz of St. Louis Park will be the ranking Democrat on the judiciary and public safety committee. He said that Limmer and Republican leaders would do well by their party to advance the gun-control bills out of committee so the entire Senate could vote on them. Not doing so, Latz said, could hurt their election prospects in 2020.

Still, it is not clear if the proposals have the support to pass on the Senate floor. Even if all the Democrats voted in favor — and that is not a guarantee — they would still require Republican help.

Crossing party lines

Two Republicans, Sens. Scott Jensen and Paul Anderson, did break with their party last year to support expanding criminal background checks.

Jensen, R-Chaska, said he may do so again this year — on the condition that they are not mandatory. He said he would support a measure to give private sellers access to free background checks at local sheriffs’ offices.

“We’d be expanding the use of the background check tool without making it universally mandatory. I think … that’s where the common ground lies,” Jensen said.

Even so, there is no guarantee that all Democrats will vote in favor of gun control.

Strawser, the chairman of the Minnesota Gun Owner’s Caucus, pointed out that Democrats did not pass stricter gun laws when they had full control of the state government in 2013.

“Despite their confidence right now, I don’t think that’s any guarantee that they’re going to get anything passed,” Strawser said.