Minnesota lawmakers ready for rapid-fire gun debate

By Don Davis and Danielle Killey

Minnesota lawmakers are pulling the trigger on gun-related legislation.

Hours of House committee gun-related hearings are scheduled Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with senators planning similar meetings later in the month.

Bills still are being introduced, and probably will be for the next several weeks, so a full picture of what state legislators will debate is not clear as President Barack Obama plans a visit to Minneapolis on Monday to promote his anti-gun violence proposals.

Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, said he has received more emails from constituents about gun control than any other topic. He said he sees some agreement from the two extremes on the issue, such as bolstering programs for the mentally ill.

“There is more consensus on this issue than people give it credit,” Faust said. “Even the pro-gun people are in favor of those changes.”

Faust said he has received complaints from people attending a Hinckley gun show that people in one booth would do a background check on a potential buyer, while those in the next booth would sell guns with no background check.

That is one of the issues Minnesota and federal lawmakers will discuss: whether to require background checks before any gun sale, even private sales and maybe even gifts to family members.

Although lawmakers have talked about many bills that have yet to be written, more than a dozen have been introduced.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, and Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, have bills to keep guns away from domestic violence felons and increase the penalty for illegally possessing a firearm.

“This bill is a collaborative effort to keep guns away from convicted criminals, children and those whom a court has ordered civilly committed,” Lesch said.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, wants to outlaw so-called assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.

Other bills would expand background checks required before selling guns and making sure that potentially violent mentally ill Minnesotans cannot get guns.

Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, said he hears many constituents telling him to leave gun laws alone. “Don’t disarm good people.”

Those in his southwestern Minnesota area still favor some controls.

“There are some folks with issues,” he said about people who should not have access to guns.

Gov. Mark Dayton said he wants to see what the federal government does on gun issues, but could back state legislation as well.

“If it’s really going to make a difference to keeping (guns) out of the hands of dangerous people,” Dayton said, he could accept changes or new laws.

For example, he said he likely could support requiring background checks for gun show weapon purchases, which he called a loophole.

“There’s this huge gap in what we have now,” Dayton said.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said the discussion will be broad and focus not just on gun-control legislation, but also other related issues such as school safety and mental health care that can have an impact on violence.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said discussions on guns and mental illness need to be about heading off the problem, not only controlling access to guns. She emphasized that a small percentage of mentally ill people become violent, but said early intervention can prevent some of those cases.

“I think we’re complicit to violence if we don’t intervene,” she said.

Sheran is an author of a bill that would, among other pieces, create a funding program for schools to contract with mental health professionals to provide students services.

Sue Abderholden, Minnesota’s National Association on Mental Illness director, said those who are mentally ill and most likely to be violent are young, isolated, and in the early stages of their disease.

About half of adults who are mentally ill start exhibiting symptoms by age 14, Abderholden said, so early diagnosis and treatment can be key.

“Mental health issues are on the rise in our schools,” Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, said.

The former high school principal said providing parent and student mental health resources through the schools can be helpful. “I really believe it can make a difference.”

Sheran said addressing other problems such as bullying in schools can help curb violence as well.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, had planned a bill allowing school personnel such as teachers to carry guns as a way to make schools safer. However, he now says he will not offer the bill since it has no chance to pass in a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Instead, Cornish said he will spend his time trying to defeat what he sees as anti-gun bills.

“I’m not going to budge an inch,” he said on issues such as requiring universal background checks for gun buyers.

“We are going to prove by statistics that gun laws don’t work,” he said.

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