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Minnesota panel passes universal background check requirement for gun sales

Gun control supporters and opponents packed a hallway at the Minnesota Capitol ahead of a hearing Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, on a pair of firearm bills. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE1 / 4
Gun control supporters and opponents packed a hallway at the Minnesota Capitol ahead of a hearing Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, on a pair of firearm bills. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE2 / 4
Gun control supporters and opponents packed a hallway at the Minnesota Capitol ahead of a hearing Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, on a pair of firearm bills. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE3 / 4
Gun control supporters and opponents packed a hallway at the Minnesota Capitol ahead of a hearing Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, on a pair of firearm bills. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE4 / 4

ST. PAUL — A Minnesota panel on Wednesday, Feb. 27, advanced a bill that would require universal background checks for firearm purchases and transfers.

The House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Division on a 9-7 vote approved the bill and sent it to the House Ways and Means Committee. The decision came around 10 p.m. after hours of emotional testimony from supporters and opponents who flocked to the Capitol to advocate for their positions.

Just after 10 p.m., lawmakers launched into testimony on another bill that would let law enforcement remove a person's guns if they posed a danger to themselves or others. They ended their meeting around Midnight prior to taking action on the bill.

Supporters of the background check bill said the checks were needed to curb gun violence in the state and keep guns out of the hands of those who aren't legally allowed to have them. Opponents, meanwhile, said the bill wouldn't have the desired effect and instead would penalize lawful gun owners.

“This is about human lives,” Burnsville resident Bob Mokos told the committee. Mokos, a gun control advocate, said he was a gun owner and his sister was fatally shot decades ago. “I, for one, am weary about the children in this country being the price we pay for the Second Amendment.”

Opponents, including gun owners and gun rights advocates, said the bill could penalize those gun owners who aim to obey the law.

“This law will harass law-abiding gun owners," said Joe Olson, a law professor at Mitchell Hamline and a gun rights advocate. "It will produce no net change in reducing any kind of crime or suicide."

Before the hearing started, hundreds of gun control supporters and opponents filled a Minnesota Capitol hearing room and overflow spaces. They held up signs stating their views on the debate and wore shirts, hats and stickers with slogans advocating for their respective sides.

In the lead-up to the hearing, committee leaders stoked further frustrations around the debate by attempting to move the hearing venue to a suburban school and then moving the meeting back to the Capitol. A state lawmaker escalated tensions among bill supporters at a gun rally over the weekend when he made comments perceived to encourage violence against gun control advocates.

State lawmakers earlier in the day made clear where they stood on the bills with Democrats eager to push them forward and Republicans prepared to stall and attempt to sink them in committee.

Top legislative leaders from either chamber said they were prepared to dig in on this issue and weave it into end-of-session budget debates if necessary.

Democratic leaders, who hold a majority in the House, said Wednesday that the bills would have support there. But Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, whose party holds a three-seat advantage in the Senate, said the proposals wouldn't get through that chamber even with changes.

“I just don’t think you have nearly enough votes in the Senate, so I’d rather just say it’s not going to happen,” Gazelka told reporters.

But House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she was sure that once Gazelka and others heard the stories that inspired the bills, he'd come around. And if not, Hortman said she was prepared to raise the stakes and add the proposals to House Democrats' budget bill.

“If that isn’t successful — that they go to conference as stand-alone bills — they will be a part of the budget negotiations,” Hortman said.