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Minnesota stalemate on gun laws is contrast to broader national momentum

By Stephen Montemayor and Jim Spencer, Star Tribune

Minnesota is a notable exception as a resurgence of high-profile mass shootings nationwide revives momentum for new gun laws in Washington, D.C., and in multiple states.

The impasse over new gun restrictions at the divided State Capitol continues even in the aftermath of the state’s own deadly mass shooting at a health clinic in Buffalo in February. Meanwhile, gun sales in the state are soaring to record highs.

Congress and several states are considering expanded background checks on all firearm transfers and new “red flag” laws to let judges remove guns from those deemed a threat. But in Minnesota, advocates on both sides of the debate already are setting their sights on the 2022 election, when all 201 state legislative seats are on the ballot.

The coming legislative redistricting also could bring changes. Population shifts are expected to result in more lawmakers from metro-area districts with voters more favorable to new gun restrictions.

“As long as legislators feel like they are being held hostage by the right wing of their political parties and that they can have someone run against them in a primary or in an endorsement battle over this issue, they are going to answer to those folks and not to the majority of their district,” said state Sen. Ron Latz, a St. Louis Park Democrat who is again sponsoring background checks and “red flag” proposals at the state level.

Although gun enthusiasts are confident in the unlikelihood of new state-level restrictions this year, they are not holding out hope for their own top priority of “stand your ground” legislation that expands legal protections for using deadly force to defend one’s self or property.

“We’ve seen in the past 10 years the parties get more entrenched in their ideologies; there are fewer pro-Second Amendment Democrats and there are fewer pro-gun control Republicans,” said Rob Doar, policy director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus. “So in that sense the stalemate has only harshened.”

While weakened, the National Rifle Association still retains influence in Washington. But groups like Doar’s are now routinely outspent in Minnesota. Political action committees for the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund spent $576,614 in 2020, and Protect Minnesota added another $4,800. The Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee spent just $8,618 through May 2020 — the most recent date for which data are available.

“But they really haven’t taken much advantage,” Doar said.

Rachel Aplikowski, a Senate GOP spokeswoman, said Judiciary Chairman Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican, remains focused on passing a budget bill in the remainder of the session: “Policy reforms are something that can be worked on next year.”

The recent spike in mass shootings may have revived the gun control debate, but gun violence has broadly remained as dire as ever, said James Densley, a professor at Metropolitan State University’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Education Center.

Densley, who helped co-found the nonprofit Violence Project research group, pointed out that Minneapolis and St. Paul both notched homicide totals last year not seen since the 1990s.

“So if it is the mass shootings that gets the legislators through the door to start talking about this issue, that has to be a good thing because at the moment we are experiencing a crisis of gun violence in general,” Densley said.

With gun bills stalled in St. Paul, attention has shifted to a Congress narrowly led by Democrats. President Joe Biden has called for new gun restrictions, and he said he supports a new ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Minnesota’s Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith both favor new gun restrictions at the federal level, which researchers like Densley said could improve a landscape of patchwork gun laws across the country. Red-flag and background-check legislation have received hearings on Capitol Hill, but Democrats need 10 Republican votes to avoid a filibuster under Senate rules.

“It’s been over 25 years since Congress took meaningful action on gun safety legislation,” Klobuchar said. “We should not wait another day to pass common sense reforms, including universal background checks, which a bipartisan majority of Americans support.”

Smith recently read to her fellow senators a grieving mother’s eulogy for her 6-year-old son killed in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was “a reminder of the human toll our gun culture has taken,” Smith said.

“The only people standing in the way are Republicans in Congress who seem much more interested in putting the demands of the NRA above the needs of the people we are elected to serve,” Smith said.

At a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Klobuchar invoked the Feb. 9 shooting at the Allina Health clinic in Buffalo, Minn., that killed a 37-year-old medical assistant and seriously hurt four others. The shooter used a handgun for which he had been issued a permit by Buffalo police even though the man had previously been arrested for violating a restraining order by a doctor at the clinic.

Klobuchar has been working to close the “boyfriend loophole,” which would stop abusive dating partners and convicted stalkers from buying a gun. A similar provision recently passed the U.S. House as a part of a bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.

Minnesota’s four Republican House members — Tom Emmer, Michelle Fischbach, Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber — voted against recent background-check legislation that passed the House.

Stauber, a retired police officer, called it “an unconstitutional gun grab” and said that expanded background checks would “criminalize the private transfer of firearms.” He also opposes a provision that would end a law allowing gun sales after three days if background checks cannot be completed. Fischbach echoed those sentiments.

Hagedorn called universal background checks “a path to establish a federal gun registry” and said Biden’s call for an assault weapons ban would “pave the way for federal gun confiscation.”

Emmer did not respond to a request for comment.

Minnesota is on pace this year to eclipse 1 million background checks for firearm sales for the first time ever, with 268,705 through the first three months of 2021. That’s on track to surpass last year’s record 958,391 checks. Last month, the FBI reported a record 105,224 background checks for March in Minnesota, the first time it performed more than 100,000 in the state in a single month since it began reporting such data in 1998.

In a year marked by pandemic anxiety and rioting after George Floyd’s killing, Minnesota also issued a record 96,554 permits to carry handguns last year — up from 51,404 in 2019. The state also denied 1,191 permit applications last year, and people with permits committed 3,110 crimes — the highest total since the state made it legal to carry a firearm in 2003.

Molly Leutz, state chapter co-lead for Minnesota Moms Demand Action, struck a hopeful tone recently in the aftermath of another annual rally day conducted virtually because of COVID-19. Doar’s group is planning its own virtual rally next week.

“I think that it is a marathon still; it is not a sprint,” Leutz said. “Sometimes it seems like it should be a sprint when you hear the stories you hear and the survivors who come share their stories in order to try to change hearts and minds.”

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