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Debate over gun laws takes center stage in St. Paul

ST. PAUL — A key state senator acknowledged Tuesday that efforts to toughen the state’s gun laws aren’t going anywhere this legislative session.

The Minnesota State Capitol building is pictured Wednesday, March 2, 2016 in St. Paul.

ST. PAUL — A key state senator acknowledged Tuesday that efforts to toughen the state's gun laws aren't going anywhere this legislative session.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, is sponsoring a bill requiring background checks for all gun purchases made in the state. Latz, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, scheduled a hearing on his bill but with a caveat — no vote would be taken. Latz told reporters there was no point in having a vote when the Republican-controlled Minnesota House has vowed not to hold hearings on any gun bills. But Latz said he's already looking ahead to getting the legislation passed next year.

"The citizens of Minnesota are demanding that we take some action on this and we take what steps we reasonable can to try to reduce gun violence. This is not going to solve all the problems — there's no questions about that. But it seems to me it's a very concrete first step we can take," Latz said.

Even with no vote scheduled on Latz's bill, supporters and opponents of the measure packed a Senate committee hearing room Tuesday for the chance to weigh in. Critics told senators the bill goes too far and would do nothing to reduce gun violence.

"Criminals by definition do not follow the law and are not going to subject themselves to background checks to acquire a firearm," said Scott Rausch, lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.


Under state law, individuals purchasing guns at gun shows or online do not have to undergo criminal background checks. Latz's bill would get rid of those exemptions, requiring the background checks for all purchases exempt for those between immediate family members and law enforcement. He told lawmakers an estimated 40 percent of gun purchases in the state do not involved background checks.

"If you went to the airport and only 60 percent of the passengers went through security screening and the other 40 percent were allowed to go straight on the plane, would you be comfortable getting on the plane? That's what Minnesota's gun purchase background check is right now," Latz said.

Under the bill, individuals who sell a gun without performing a background check would be guilty of a gross misdemeanor for the first offense and a felony for the second offense.

Opponents of Latz's bill say it creates a burden for responsible gun owners. Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance President Andrew Rothman, formerly of Rochester, told lawmakers that Latz's bill would effectively create a gun registry by requiring owners to go to a federally licensed firearms dealer and fill out paperwork for the background check. Those forms ask for individuals' personal information and the make, model and serial number of the gun they are buying.

"This is a permanent federal record — but it's not registration. I don't buy it. That is registration," Rothman said.

Several of the bill's supporters, including law enforcement and victims of gun violence, told lawmakers that these background checks are needed to help keep Minnesotans safe. They pointed to statistics that show that in the 18 states that already require criminal background checks, there has been a dramatic drop in certain gun-related deaths.

Rachel Joseph shared the story of her aunt, Shelley Joseph-Kordell, who was murdered on Sept. 29, 2003, at the Hennepin County Government Center. The woman who shot her aunt bought a gun for $60 at a gun show with no background check required.

"Shelley would have done anything for her family, and I have no doubt that if it had been me who was shot and killed that day, she'd be here now doing everything in her power to change things and make sure that no other family has to live through the hell of having a loved one taken by gun violence," Joseph said.


At one point during the hearing, Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, asked opponents to explain what they are really afraid of when it comes to background checks. Gun rights supporter Dick Dian sought to answer that question.

"This is another centimeter movement away from the Constitution, the Bill of Rights that were not given to us but were guaranteed as God-given rights," he said.

Dian then added, "That is what I am afraid of. I'm afraid of you."

After the 2 1/2-hour hearing, members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America gathered at a church across the street to rally in support of stricter gun regulation. Rochester resident Sarah Broughton was among those making the trip to St. Paul for the rally. The 42-year-old volunteers for the group and said she is deeply concerned about gun violence and wants lawmakers to take action.

"I wanted to be here along with everybody else to show our legislators how important this issue is to us. I feel as our elected officials, it is their responsibility to reflect our wishes," she said.

Broughton was scheduled to meet with local lawmakers to make her case. Asked whether she is disappointed that lawmakers don't intend to take action on background checks this year, she said no. Instead, she views Tuesday's hearing and rally day as a chance to make progress on the issue. It's something she said will be on her mind in the upcoming election.

"I know we can support our legislators who support the issue," she said, "and we'd be happy to go door knocking for them and throw our support behind their campaigns and that's something that we'd really like to get across to them — we're here for you if you support this bill."


Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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