House Speaker Paul Thissen decided Wednesday that the Minnesota House won't vote on any gun control bills this year, a major priority for many Democrats coming into the legislative session but one that got stymied by divisions in the party over access to guns.
"I think both sides of the issue are still not willing to come to a reasonable middle ground, so I don't think there's a bill that can pass the House of Representatives this year," said Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. He said he would encourage gun control supporters to keep working on proposals with an eye on next year's legislative session.
After December's elementary school shooting in Connecticut and other recent mass shootings, gun control supporters in Minnesota started eyeing the Capitol in January as Democrats took control of the legislative process. But while gun control backers found allies among some urban and suburban DFLers, they faced intense opposition from the National Rifle Association and had trouble winning the support of Democrats from rural districts where gun ownership is more frequent.
At least eight Democrats from districts outside the Twin Cities opposed virtually any expansion of the state's background check system, which does not apply to sales at gun shows or between two private individuals. House Republicans lined up against stronger gun control, and needed to swing only six Democrats to block bills from passing.
Thissen said even a bill with wider support that would give county attorneys more tools to prosecute gun criminals would not happen this year. Thissen, who supports expanded background checks, said he hoped interest groups on both sides of the debate would show more willingness to compromise.
Gun control supporters' failure to build momentum for new legislation in Minnesota echoes gun control efforts in Washington, where the U.S. Senate recently defeated a universal background check bill despite numerous polls showing support for doing so.
"It's a problem that could be so easily fixed, and the overwhelming majority of the public agrees with us," said Sami Rahamim, the St. Louis Park teenager whose father was killed in a workplace shooting in Minneapolis last year. Rahamim became a regular presence at the Capitol in recent months lobbying for gun control measures, and he said he and fellow activists knew going in that it might take more than one legislative session to accomplish anything.
Republican state Rep. Tony Cornish, a gun control opponent, called Thissen's decision "a great victory for gun owners." He said he doubted all along Democrats would be able to muster the votes to make meaningful changes, and was also skeptical they would take it up in the 2014 session.
"If they're not going to bring it up this year, they're sure not going to bring it up in an election year," said Cornish, who supports placing armed guards in schools as a way to prevent mass shootings.
Page 2 of 2 - Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has been cautious about embracing gun control, noting its ability to split members of his party. But he had been open to expanding background checks, as had Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk despite his rural constituency and support for expansions of gun rights over the years.
Bakk said Wednesday he understood Thissen's decision, and added that if gun control is dead in the House for the year then it's dead in the Senate, too.
He called gun rights supporters "a passionate constituency" and said they've contacted him more than any other interest group this year. "That kind of organization matters," Bakk said.