By T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter
The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre has softened the edges of the gun debate at the State Capitol. At least that’s what some believe.
“I think the Connecticut tragedy really brought a sea of change in attitude,” said House Public Safety Finance and Policy Chairman Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul.
Rural lawmakers have expressed a willingness to do something on gun control, he said. Perhaps not what gun control advocates want, but something, Paymar said.
“Two years ago, four years ago, you wouldn’t have heard any rural members saying that,” he said.
Paymar’s committee begins to meet next week is expected to hear a series of gun-related bills. The committee will likely hold additional evening hearings to allow for public comment. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to take up gun-related legislation later in the month.
Gun-related bills continue to be tossed into the hopper.
Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, this week proposed the creation an electronic registry of adults who, because of mental health concerns, voluntarily request to be denied firearms permits and be prohibited from purchasing guns.
Paymar is optimistic gun legislation will pass the Legislature.
“I don’t just want it be to window dressing and say we looked at the problem. I want the (omnibus) bill to have substance to it,” he said.
Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota, a group working to end gun violence, like Paymar, views Sandy Hook as recasting the debate.
“I think things have changed considerably,” she said.
Protect Minnesota, which has a mailing list of 15,000, is working with lawmakers on a handful of gun-related initiatives, Martens explained. For instance, the group wants the capacity of bullet clips limited to seven bullets. It wants background checks to include screening to determine whether the applicant has had contact with law enforcement. The idea, said Martens, is to spot the mentally ill before they can purchase a gun. Under the proposal, potential gun buyers could be required to obtain letters from health professionals certifying their fitness to own a gun, she explained.
The group is looking for legislation concerning so-called assault rifles.
Paymar is carrying a “universal background check” bill, which plugs the perceived gun-show loophole.
Other bills are being proposed, but opinions differ sharply.
Some legislators believe the best defense against school massacres like Sandy Hook is arming teachers.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, chief of police in Lake Crystal, is advancing a bill to allow teachers, regardless of the wishes of supervisors, to carry guns in the classroom.
“It will get a hearing, and then die a sudden death,” Cornish said, smiling.
“But I plan to introduced it, work hard, get people educated at the hearing, and bide my time,” said Cornish, a former game warden shot at in the line of duty.
Concealed-carry legislation languished for years before becoming law, Cornish explained. He looks to the “common sense” of Greater Minnesota legislative leaders like Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Chairman David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, to “stop the madness” in terms of gun control.
“I don’t think anything is going to go through,” said Cornish, saying Democrats may be leery of the “over reaching” charge they’ve leveled against Republicans.
Another Greater Minnesota Republican, Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, views potential gun legislation as putting rural Democrats in a box.
“I don’t know if they really want to go there,” said Davids. “I think they do it at their own peril,” he said.
But Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, believes common ground exists. “Despite all the press — all the commotion we hear about — I think there’s really a lot more consensus on this issue than people realize,” Faust said.
Concerns on both sides of the gun debate overlap, he argued.
Most people agree guns need to be kept out the hands of criminals, the mentally unstable. Most people agree gun laws should be consistent. “So I don’t think I’m in box on it,” Faust said.
But gun control advocates need to temper their zeal, he warned.
“If they come and say, ‘It’s that or nothing,’ they’ll get nothing,” Faust said.
National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyist Christopher Rager points to the area of mental health — government sharing information, for instance — as common ground in the debate.
“I think mental health is a really big one,” he said of areas of shared concern. The NRA is eager to work to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, he explained. But there are proposals the NRA views as fitting political agendas rather than legitimate policy discussion, he said.
Rager styled the seven-shot clip proposal as “arbitrary” — why seven? he asked. The provision is a step toward further restriction or gun confiscation, he argued.
In recent weeks the political power of the NRA has been widely discussed in the national media. Hamline University Professor David Schultz views Sandy Hook as changing the political calculus on guns to a degree, but still views the NRA as a “potent force” in Minnesota.
It’s possible to carry gun legislation in a safe Democratic district and not worry about the NRA, but a Republican supporting gun control could risk a primary challenge, Schultz wrote in an email.
In swing districts, and there are more than 30 of them, supporting changes in gun law could be a factor next election, and the NRA could make a difference, Schultz wrote.
University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute Political Science Larry Jacobs views the power of the NRA as “real but overstated.” The NRA alone can’t defeat candidates, Jacobs wrote in an email.
But the NRA can add to the political risk for Democrats in low Democratic turnout elections — perhaps push a Republican over the top in swing districts already made vulnerable by unpopular, perceived liberal budget and tax law.
“So district and overall nature of the election matter,” Jacobs wrote.
The strength of the NRA, said Rager, comes from its millions of members and grassroot activism. The NRA is wrongly depicted as solely interested in increasing guns sale, and that’s “just not the case,” he said.