By Don Davis
The message from Minnesota’s rural Democratic senators about this week’s gun-bill flurry is simple: Don’t expect a warm reception in the Senate.
“The Senate has always been the more reasonable body,” Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said Thursday, joining with others in saying rural senators cannot buy into many of the changes a House committee debated this week.
Without rural Democrats, it would be tough to get enough votes to pass bills that do things such as ban assault weapons, forbid use of large ammunition magazines and require permits to own body armor. Those are among ideas a House committee heard this week and possibly up for debate in a Senate committee later this month.
“It’s a good thing to vent, but it’s not going anywhere,” Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, said.
Rural Democrats say that lawmakers’ attention is on writing a two-year budget, increasing education funding and lowering property taxes. However, they do get feedback about guns.
“I have been hearing from constituents,” Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said. “They are becoming further opposed to gun legislation.”
The one factor that seems to bring together liberals and conservatives, rural and urban Minnesotans is a need to improve mental health treatment and keeping guns out of the hands of mentally ill people who could be violent.
“Finally, mental health is getting the attention it deserves,” Eken said.
Guns have been the Minnesota political topic of the week, starting with President Barack Obama’s Monday visit to Minneapolis promoting his anti-gun violence initiatives. Chairman Michael Paymar of the Minnesota House Public Safety Committee presided over five gun-related meetings in the next three days.
Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, said he plans to put all or parts of 10 bills into comprehensive gun legislation and give his committee one day to debate, amend and vote on the bill later this month.
“We will have to construct something rural Democrats can deal with,” he said, not hinting about what that could be.
One Democrat’s bill ran into a polite buzz saw of opposition Thursday when he discussed a proposal to require a state permit before a Minnesotan could own body armor.
Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, went in front of Paymar’s committee, the first time in his month-long legislative career that he had promoted a bill. He said body armor has been used by many mass shooters and average people have no need for it.
“It should be reserved for the brave members of the military and law enforcement,” Simonson told the committee.
Requiring permits would make it harder for criminals to get armor, he said. That could influence them not to commit crimes or make them more vulnerable if they do, he added.
Republicans praised Simonson’s efforts, then ripped specifics in his bill.
Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said it could be better to increase penalties for criminals wearing body armor rather than require permits.
Others were critical because average Minnesotans who felt threatened, such as domestic abuse victims, would be forced to pay for a permit. One lawmaker pointed out that some football quarterbacks wear armor as production during football games, while some wondered if they would be able to keep bullet-proof vests they already have.
“It appears to me that we are punishing the super majority of citizens,” Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, said. “My heart agrees with it, but once I think this through, I think it creates a lot of problems.”
Simonson said he welcomed the comments and will work to craft a better bill.
Among bills Paymar is considering as candidates for the overall bill are ones that would:
— Outlaw so-called assault rifles.
— Ban high-capacity ammunition clips.
— Require background checks when guns are sold privately.
— Allow police chiefs to issue gun permits (only sheriffs do it now).
— Improve mental health screening before a gun permit is issued.
— Increase penalties for possessing guns in schools.
— Increase penalties if a gun owner does not comply with a request to leave private property.