Updated: 03/14/2013 11:12 PM KSTP.com By: Scott Theisen
A Senate panel passed a bill Thursday night that would impose universal background checks for gun purchases, but that measure still has a tall and rocky hill to climb before becoming law in Minnesota.
After hours of hearings last month on a dozen proposals to change the state's gun laws, the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed a plan that also would help county attorneys crack down on the owners of illegal guns and make it harder for people who lose their gun rights to get them back.
Its passage marks lawmakers' first vote on gun bills at the Capitol, where the issue has become a tug-of-war between the lead Democrats pushing to expand background checks and a coalition of Republicans, rural Democrats and gun rights advocates who say those checks would burden law-abiding gun owners while having little impact on reducing gun crime.
The bill passed on a 5-3 party-line vote, with all Democrats on the committee voting for it and all Republicans opposed. Those five Democrats are from urban areas of Minnesota.
"What we need is criminal control," said Waconia Mayor Jim Nash, who opposed the bill. "Common sense should rule the day here. This is not a common-sense bill."
That's a common refrain among opponents. Those complaints forecast the long fight ahead in the House and Senate for gun control measures, which party leaders have conceded probably lack the votes to pass.
Sen. Ron Latz, a St. Louis Park Democrat who chairs the committee, said his legislation takes the best provisions from competing bills. That includes requiring background checks for nearly all private gun sales, a measure he and the lead Democrat in the House made the heart of their gun violence bills. In pushing for expanded background checks, proponents often cite a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll from February that showed support among 70 percent of Minnesotans. Gov. Mark Dayton has said he will push the Legislature to include that provision in a bill but likely wouldn't veto a bill without it.
"It seems to me that it is a very minor regulatory addition to our fabric of laws to protect the public safety," Latz said.
Latz's bill also pulls many provisions from an alternate plan with less-restrictive revisions to gun laws, backed by the National Rifle Association and many members from both parties.
The NRA-backed bill aims to improve - but not expand - Minnesota's background checks by sending mental health commitment information to the national database of people who can't legally own a gun and by requiring the state 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.
"They've introduced a good bill that goes 75 percent of the way there but leaves a gaping hole in terms of protecting public safety," Latz said of the alternative's lack of universal background checks.
The Judiciary Committee discussed but did not vote on that alternate bill, which Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, introduced in the Senate this week with 20 co-sponsors. Its companion bill in the House has 73 co-sponsors - more than enough to pass the 134-member chamber.
"We could all agree tonight on the content of my bill, so why is it being stopped?" Ortman said earlier Thursday.
If Latz's bill or the House bill with background checks falters, lawmakers could still employ a parliamentary maneuver to bring the bills straight to the House and Senate floors for a full vote. Ortman said she hasn't decided what steps to take next with her bill.
Rep. Michael Paymar, the St. Paul Democrat who led gun hearings in the House last month, said he expects his bill to come up Tuesday for a vote in the House Public Safety Committee.
Paymar said he also plans to borrow several measures from the NRA-backed bill to put into his own.
"To me, that's a huge compromise," he said.
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