A proposal to require background checks for all Minnesota's gun purchases ignited controversy at a Senate hearing Thursday, demonstrating what's likely to be the biggest dividing line as the Legislature grapples with gun control measures.
Senators on the Judiciary Committee reviewed that and other proposals at a Capitol hearing that again drew large crowds largely comprised of gun control opponents. But, several weeks after the House considered a variety of gun restrictions including an assault weapons ban, the Senate narrowed the potential areas of dispute between gun control supporters and opponents.
Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, reaffirmed his committee wouldn't consider any bans on weapons or ammunition sales in the state. And the president of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance, an NRA ally, said the group did not oppose Latz's bill to toughen various legal penalties for convicted felons who go on to commit further gun crimes.
But sharp differences remained over the background check requirement. The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion of Minneapolis, would extend government background checks beyond sales from licensed dealers, to include weapons purchases made online, at gun shows, garage sales or between two private citizens.
"All of those paths are exploited by gun traffickers, and these guns end up on our streets," said Champion, who represents some of the city's most crime-plagued areas. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who in recent weeks has jumped into the larger national debate around gun control sparked anew by December's elementary school shootings in Connecticut, cited a 2003 fatal shooting at Hennepin County Government Center by a woman using a gun purchased at a show.
"We know that gun laws alone won't stop gun violence, but there are people in this state and my city who have been killed by guns that weren't subject to background checks," Rybak said.
A number of Minnesota's police and sheriff groups also support the background checks. Dennis Flaherty, director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, cited research in claiming 40 percent of Minnesota gun purchases are not through federally licensed dealers who must submit buyers to background checks.
But gun control opponents argued that statistic was from an outdated study. Kevin Vick, a gun store owner from Lakeville, said the number likely was closer to 10 percent.
"This bill will have minimal if any impact on deterring gun crime," Vick said.
Chris Rager, an NRA lobbyist, said criminals seeking guns would find ways to avoid background checks.
"It will only inconvenience law-abiding gun owners," he said.
Joseph Olson, the Hamline Law school professor who leads the Gun Owners group, said many gun owners believe blanket background checks would create a simple way for government entities to maintain comprehensive lists of gun owners that ultimately could be used to seize privately owned guns.
Page 2 of 2 - Latz said the Judiciary Committee would not vote on any gun control proposals after two days of hearings Thursday and Friday. He intends to assemble an "omnibus" bill of various gun measures, which he said his committee would vote on by mid-March. In the House, Public Safety Committee chairman Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, also has plans to put together a guns omnibus bill.
Whatever final package the Senate and House agree on must win over Gov. Mark Dayton, who has said he would only sign gun bills that have support from rural Democrats with more constituents likely to own guns and oppose limits on them.