Minnesota Senate panel approves trio of gun bills

Tribune Content Agency

MINNEAPOLIS — A trio of bills aimed at curbing gun violence received the endorsement of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, a giant victory for supporters of gun safety measures who have seen similar proposals languish for years under Republican control of the Senate.

The sponsor of the bills, Senate Judiciary Chair Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he doesn’t expect to consider any additional gun bills this session. The question now becomes whether these three bills can pass the Senate, where Democrats have a 34-33 advantage.

“Everyone’s going to make their own judgment call on it,” Latz said. “We have lots of new senators evaluating a lot of things for the first time.”

In a hearing that stretched beyond five hours, the committee heard from more than 30 members of the public, crime victims and law enforcement, most of whom supported the bills.

A few opponents testified that the measures attempt to incrementally impinge on their Second Amendment rights and inconvenience them. One opponent sharply threatened electoral retaliation against senators who voted for the bills, and received multiple rebukes.

Latz opened his comments by saying: “Gun violence is an epidemic in our society.”

He talked about people living in fear, and how more Minnesotans die by suicide using guns than by homicides involving guns. The three bills would help the state “step up to the plate a little bit more and prevent firearms tragedies,” he said.

The first bill, which the panel endorsed and sent to the Finance Committee on a 6-4 party-line vote, would close a loophole in the law by expanding criminal background checks for pistols and semiautomatic military-style assault weapons sold at shows, online or transferred. Latz noted the bill wouldn’t apply to hunting rifles.

The least controversial bill would increase penalties to 20 years for owning or possessing a machine gun, trigger activator or a conversion kit to make a gun automatic. That bill passed on a voice vote, as did a red flag bill aimed at keeping firearms away from those who are a danger to themselves or others.

House committees have endorsed the background check and red flag bills, but haven’t yet acted on the machine gun bill.

Some of the most emotional testimony came from crime victims — including Melissa Kennedy, a physician assistant at the Allina Health Buffalo Crossroads Clinic where Gregory Ulrich shot five people, killing Lindsay Overbay, in February 2021.

“We knew (Ulrich) was dangerous,” Kennedy said. “But Minnesota did not have a law to protect its citizens from people in crisis.”

Roseville pastor Rolf Olson urged passage of gun safety measures, saying that his daughter Katherine, 24, was shot in the back by a .357 Magnum in 2007 when she answered a Craigslist ad for a babysitter at a house in Shakopee. He told committee members to “consider my daughter who was permanently inconvenienced by being put in a grave.”

Under the first bill, those who seek to buy or transfer pistols and semiautomatic assault weapons would be required to seek a permit from law enforcement, which would have 30 days to conduct a background check. The permit could be denied for those who have domestic violence or drug-related convictions, are in a gang database or deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Latz said the bill would close a loophole that allows 40% of such firearms to be sold through gun shows, online or transferred to neighbors and friends without background checks.

Officials with the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and the Minnesota Chiefs of Police all spoke for the bill. So did Public Safety Commissioner Bob Jacobson, who called it a “common sense” law already in place in 21 states.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi also urged passage, saying it’s a critical loophole to close. “We’ve had this conversation for way too long,” he said.

A National Rifle Association lobbyist opposed the bills, as did Ben Dorr, director of Minnesota Gun Rights, an advocacy group based in Northfield. He called the bill “an absolute sham” and the hearing a “dog and pony show.”

Dorr listed a series of mass shootings where the shooters involved had passed background checks before obtaining their firearms, and pledged to bring the “full political fury” of gun supporters on senators in the next election.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, interrupted Dorr, calling his threat “totally inappropriate.”

The bill requires those who are party to a firearms transfer to keep their paperwork for 10 years. Failure to do so would be a misdemeanor.

GOP Sen. Warren Limmer voted against the bill and said “the federal government doesn’t even require us to keep our tax records 10 years.” He said the bill focuses “a lot of regulation on a broad law-abiding population.”

GOP Sen. Jeff Howe argued against the bills, noting that he was a “trained sniper.” He asked Latz whether he had ever hunted fox, coyote or “anything at all?” Latz said he went duck hunting with friends once as a child.

Howe told Latz the bill “looks to me to make those of us obeying the law criminals.”

On the red flag bill, Latz said it would create two pathways for getting a gun away from a dangerous person — through filing a petition with law enforcement or requesting an emergency hearing in front of a judge. No such option currently exists.

Rob Doar, vice president and lobbyist for the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, said the key to passage of the bill will be two freshmen DFL senators from northern Minnesota, Grant Hauschild of Hermantown and Rob Kupec of Moorhead.

“They certainly have the momentum,” Doar said of the bills’ advocates. “But we’ve got a lot of members in these key districts where the senators haven’t taken a position.”

Doar said he was pleased the Senate panel had not taken up four other bills that have been proposed and were of major concern to his members. Those bills would enhance firearm storage requirements, increase the age for military-style rifles to 21, require reporting of stolen firearms and limit the size of magazines.