ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota House committee voted Wednesday night to require universal criminal background checks for gun purchasers as the Legislature took up the contentious issue of gun control for the first time this session.
The House public safety committee approved the bill on a 9-7 vote. The bill next goes to the Ways and Means Committee.
The committee then began considering a bill for a "red flag" law to allow families and police to seek court orders to temporarily confiscate guns from people judged to pose an imminent threat to themselves or others, but didn't finish before the midnight deadline and put off a vote until Thursday night.
Leaders of the new Democratic majority in the House predicted floor approval of both bills, and Democratic Gov. Tim Walz reaffirmed his support in his budget proposal last week. But Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has vowed to block the legislation.
Illustrating the strong feelings that gun issues evoke, a crowd of more than 300 people packed the hallway outside the hearing room ahead of the event, and many had to watch from an overflow room. Supporters of the bills wore red T-shirts for the group Moms Demand Action or orange shirts for Protect Minnesota, while opponents wore black shirts from the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus.
Sa'Lesha Beeks, a Protect Minnesota board member, choked up as she testified how her mother and daughter became innocent bystanders as they waited at a stop sign in Minneapolis in 2016. She said her mother, Birdell Beeks, was killed and her daughter was left traumatized by a man whose gang ties would have turned up in a background check, and would have been stopped from buying the gun that killed her mother while gunning for a rival gang member.
"This bill is not about taking away the rights of law-abiding citizens, it's about protecting Minnesotans from individuals who should not have the right to purchase or carry firearms," she said as she held a photo of her mother.
But officials with the Gun Owners Caucus pointed out that the background checks bill would cover more than just gun sales, it would also apply to transfers, including certain loans and gifts of guns, though proponents pointed out that the bill contains a list of exceptions. The opponents said law-abiding owners would risk criminal penalties if they accidentally lose the paperwork.
"The goal that all of us have is, 'How do we keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people?'" the group's chairman, Bryan Strawser, said. "We agree with that goal. But the burden in this bill ... doesn't fall on the criminal element. The burden with this bill falls upon law-abiding citizens."
While the bills are high on the House Democratic agenda, it's not clear if they'll get anywhere in the Senate, where Republicans hold a three-seat majority and some rural Democrats oppose gun control.
The lead Senate sponsor of the proposals, St. Louis Park Democrat Ron Latz, said Tuesday that he's ready to try a procedural maneuver to force a vote if the Senate leadership won't schedule a hearing or floor vote. He said the key will be winning over suburban Republican senators in districts where Democrats captured House seats last November.
It's a coincidence that the hearing came just hours after the Democratic-controlled U.S. House approved a background checks bill, the first major gun control legislation considered by Congress in nearly 25 years.
Ahead of the hearing, House Speaker Melissa Hortman credited the shift in the political landscape to "the relentless advocacy of young people" since 17 people were shot and killed last year at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
"They created a political reality where moving forward on gun violence prevention is possible in the Minnesota House of Representatives," she said.
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