ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A half dozen police chiefs and sheriffs argued Tuesday in a packed Capitol hearing room that Minnesota isn't doing enough to protect against gun violence, kicking off three days of hearings on a host of new proposed limits on firearm ownership.
Hundreds of people swarmed the Capitol office building for the hearing, jamming the committee room and several overflow areas a day after President Barack Obama visited Minneapolis to tout his federal gun-control proposals.
"For a whole host of reasons, we're not keeping guns out of the hands of individuals who shouldn't have them," said Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. He testified in support of a bill to require background checks for all gun purchases, cracking down on purchases at gun shows, online or with unlicensed, private dealers.
With Democrats controlling the Legislature, new limits on gun access have their best shot at the Capitol in a number of years. But the debate could expose divides between urban Democrats, whose constituents strongly support new limits, and rural Democrats from areas with high gun ownership and little support for serious curtailments on the right to own guns. Gov. Mark Dayton, also a Democrat, has not wholeheartedly embraced new gun control measures; he told the Star Tribune on Monday that any changes would need support from rural lawmakers in order to get his signature.
The background check bill is one of a dozen Democratic-sponsored House bills limiting access to guns that are up for review in the House Public Safety Committee in the next three days.
The House committee chairman, St. Paul Democrat Michael Paymar, said he intends to assemble the best state-level proposals into an umbrella bill likely to be dubbed the "Gun Violence Prevention Act." He said the House is likely to vote on the package later in February.
The National Rifle Association testified against Paymar's universal background check requirement and another bill that would let local police departments order a mental health evaluation on people who apply for the state permit that's required to carry a weapon. The background check bill would require all gun purchases in Minnesota to be made with federally licensed dealers.
NRA lobbyist Christopher Rager said sales records of those purchases would eventually be turned over to federal law enforcement, creating a functional registry of all gun owners.
"Gun registration is something we have a concern about," Rager said. "There are many people who disagree with having their guns tracked, taxed and potentially taken away from them."
The NRA was not alone in raising concerns about tougher mental health screening for gun permit applicants. Representatives of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill took issue with the proposal, saying it stigmatizes the vast majority of mentally ill people who are not dangerous. That could discourage some people who need treatment from voluntarily entering programs out of fear it could weaken future gun ownership rights or just violate their privacy, said Sue Abderholden, director of the alliance's Minnesota chapter.
Rep. Tony Cornish, a Republican and NRA ally, had planned a bill allowing armed teachers in Minnesota schools as a preventive step against school shootings. While he criticized the Democratic bills up for debate Tuesday, Cornish said he decided not to introduce that measure as a separate bill since Dayton vowed to veto it. But Cornish said he might resurrect his proposal as a House floor amendment later in the session.