Minnesota Gun Battle Breaks Out of Committee, Moves to House Floor

A dramatically weakened gun-safety bill eked out a narrow escape from a Minnesota House committee Thursday, keeping the explosive issue of gun violence alive, ensuring that the Legislature will be asked to consider some tightening of Minnesota gun laws, and setting up contentious floor fights over the issue in the House in the weeks ahead.

After two months of debate, the House Public Safety Committee, chaired by Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, passed a bill including a softened requirement for background checks on buyers at gun shows. The narrow approval, on mostly party lines, came on a 10-8 vote (one Democrat, John Ward of Baxter, voted no), that presaged a contentious floor fight ahead. Rep. Tony Cornish, a gun-carrying Republican from Good Thunder, promised as much, telling Paymar after the vote to expect an all-out effort to defeat the bill.

"We'll continue this discussion on the House floor," Cornish said, winning nods of approval from National Rifle Association members in the hearing room who oppose any new gun laws.

Paymar replied by saying, "Gun violence, as we've talked about, is an important issue. This is only one piece of the solution. It's not strong enough, but we've taken a good step."

Key to passage of the bill, known as House File 285, was a background agreement among Democrats to accept a watered-down amendment closing the so-called "gun-show loophole" which permits people to buy guns from private parties at gun shows without undergoing background checks to make sure they have no criminal history, mental illness or other obstacle to gun ownership. The amendment, as it stands now, does not apply to other private gun sales but would require gun show buyers to produce a permit to purchase a gun, issued by a local sheriff's department, or a permit to carry a gun, which legally also requires a background check.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, only accepted the amendment after closed-door negotiations with Paymar and House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. Hilstrom had derailed previous efforts to get a bill out of committee, and gun-safety proponents were unhappy with Thissen for not using his leadership position to force Hilstrom to support the legislation. In the end, Paymar credited Thissen with helping reach an agreement that got the bill to the House floor, where gun-safety forces hope to strengthen it with amendments that were unable to win committee approval, hoping the full House will be more supportive.

Until Thursday, Paymar did not have the votes to pass anything and said he had come very close, earlier in the week, to "just taking a vote and letting it (the gun safety bill) go down." But on Wednesday, things began to move more positively when Thissen — said by gun-safety proponents to have not gotten involved in the issue until recently — let it be known he wanted Democrats to get something — anything — out of committee.

"The Speaker just said he'd like to see something get done on gun violence prevention," Paymar said after the vote. "He said, 'Is there anything we could get done to move this out of committee?' "

The result was a compromise among Democrats and an agreement to vote the bill out of committee. But the compromise amendment dropped an additional level of scrutiny by removing a requirement that private gun transactions be handled by federally licensed firearms dealers, or FFLs. Paymar has been trying for several years to get such legislation approved, and says he hopes that the FFL provision might be added on the House floor. Still, he said he was satisfied with Thursday's vote, even though all attempts to ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines and impose "universal" background checks failed.

"People said we could never get a bill out of committee, and we did," he said. "It's not the bill I wanted to pass, but we took a huge step in that direction. And we've gotten further than we've ever gotten before.

"Instead of (being) defeated in committee, we're out of committee."

Passage of the bill, even if a watered-down one, means both sides in the gun debate must now ramp up their lobbying efforts as the issue finally moves to a larger airing in the full House. After appearing that gun safety hopes might be dead just a few days ago, the new reality is this:

The debate over gun safety in Minnesota may just be beginning.

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