House DFL ditches universal background checks on gun sales

Published 10:37 am Wednesday, March 20, 2013

ST. PAUL — House lawmakers on Tuesday night stripped universal background checks for firearms sales from their push to revise the state’s gun laws.

The Democrats leading that effort announced they are switching to a plan that would extend background checks to sales at gun shows but not to private sales. That issue has divided the Democrats on geographical lines, casting doubt on whether a bill with universal background checks could pass the House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, called the new plan a compromise between his bill and a fellow Democrat who supported an alternate package of less-restrictive gun measures. The National Rifle Association built up support for that bill, which aimed to improve — but not expand — the state’s current background check system.

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Republicans and gun rights advocates said that expanding those checks just to gun show sales would still burden law-abiding gun owners while having little impact in reducing gun violence.

First introduced earlier this month, the NRA-backed bill would require the state to send mental health commitment information to the national database of people who can’t legally own a gun and to send all information to that database faster. It would also add to the parameters of what would disqualify someone from legally owning a gun and increase penalties for so-called straw purchases in which an eligible person buys a weapon for someone who legally cannot.

Paymar said he might use some of the provisions from that bill, authored by Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center. He said the deal came after hours of negotiating at the urging of House Speaker Paul Thissen.

Thissen told The Associated Press earlier Tuesday that House lawmakers were still working to build enough consensus on a bill to pass but said it wasn’t clear if universal background checks would be part of the final product.

“This keeps the discussion going,” Paymar said. “Like any compromise, I think people will be disappointed on both sides.”

Republicans and gun rights advocates said they will oppose the “watered-down” bill, which will need to be crafted and then passed by the House Public Safety Committee by the end of the week in order to beat legislative deadlines.

“The (background check exemptions for) gun shows and private sales were put in there for a reason,” said Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder. “The only way that we can put an end to this thing is to fight it all the way.”

Heather Martens of Protect Minnesota, the lead group pushing for stricter gun control measures at the Capitol, said closing the so-called gun show loophole was an important step for lawmakers to take.

“It does not go nearly far enough,” she added.

The committee had been expected to cast a vote Tuesday night on Paymar’s bill with background checks, which he called “a minor inconvenience for a civilized society.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee last week passed a bill with universal background checks on a party-line vote, with all Republicans opposed.

Sen. Ron Latz, the St. Louis Park Democrat who authored that bill, said the drastic change in the House’s approach to tackling gun violence won’t affect his own. He still plans to bring his bill to the full Senate floor.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said Tuesday that he doubts Latz’s bill has enough votes to pass.

Lawmakers in Colorado passed laws last week expanding background checks to private transfers and online gun sales and banning ammunition magazines with more than 15 rounds.

Legislative efforts to reduce gun violence in Minnesota, Colorado and New Mexico have drawn the eye of Vice President Joe Biden. Biden placed calls to elected officials in those states to discuss those efforts, according to an aide, who would not disclose which officials he had called. The aide was not authorized to discuss the calls publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Bakk said he got a call Friday from Biden, who asked about the move to expand background checks in Minnesota and how opponents of that measure were fighting it. Bakk said Biden didn’t ask him to push lawmakers to support universal background checks.