Updated: 03/19/2013 7:46 PM KSTP.com By: Scott Theisen
The White House has its eye on gun control measures at the Minnesota Capitol, where House lawmakers neared a critical vote Tuesday night on whether to require background checks for nearly all firearm sales.
Vice President Joe Biden has placed calls to elected officials in Minnesota, New Mexico and Colorado to discuss legislative efforts to reduce gun violence, according to an aide, who would not disclose which officials he had called. The aide was not authorized to discuss the calls publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk told The Associated Press that he got a call Friday from Biden, who asked about the move to expand background checks in Minnesota and how opponents measure were fighting it. Bakk said Biden didn't ask him to push lawmakers to support universal background checks.
"He specifically started the conversation by saying 'I don't want to get into anybody's politics," Bakk said. "I think he was just honestly trying to make an assessment about how this issue is being talked about, and does the conversation accurately reflect what that legislation would do?"
Bakk said he told the vice president that many Minnesota gun owners fear background checks will be used to build a gun registry. The National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates have made that argument many times in hearings at the Legislature.
After days of emotional testimony last month and weeks of wrestling for lawmakers' support, the House Public Safety and Finance Committee was prepared Tuesday evening to vote on that measure as part of a broader package of changes to Minnesota's gun laws.
Rep. Michael Paymar, a St. Paul Democrat and the committee's chairman, called universal background checks "a minor inconvenience for a civilized society."
Lawmakers in Colorado passed laws last week expanding background checks to private transfers and online gun sales and banning ammunition magazines with more than 15 rounds.
But the issue has divided the Democrats in control of Minnesota's government along geographical lines, with broader restrictions a tough sell for rural members. After Paymar and the Democrat leading the charge on gun laws in the Senate dropped assault weapons and high-capacity magazines from their bills, the issue has become a tug-of-war on background checks.
Testifiers made their case for and against background checks for the last time Tuesday ahead of the committee's vote.
"If we can keep as many guns off the streets that are illegally going to our young people as possible, it would save lives," said Gene Martin, a pastor at Joint Heirs with Christ Faith International in north Minneapolis.
Opponents like NRA lobbyist Chris Rager said that Paymar's bill would punish law-abiding gun owners rather than targeting criminals. He called on Paymar to focus on an alternate plan that supporters say would improve - but not expand - the state's current background check system.
That bill, backed by the NRA and Minnesota groups, would require the state to send mental health commitment information to the national database of people who can't legally own a gun and require 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 straw purchases, in which an eligible person buys a weapon for someone who legally cannot.
Paymar said he will likely pull several measures from the alternate plan into his own bill in an effort to compromise.
But for the Republicans on the committee, universal background checks are a non-starter. Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, likened Paymar's proposal to "dressing up a pig."
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill with universal background checks last week on a party-line vote, with all Republicans opposed.
Bakk said Tuesday he doesn't think that bill has enough votes to pass on the Senate floor.
Gov. Mark Dayton sounded exasperated Tuesday about the resistance to comprehensive background checks.
"I'm at a loss to understand what is objectionable about extending that to other gun sellers and actually putting them on the same playing field with licensed gun dealers who are required to do background checks," Dayton said. "It's unfortunate that some are just opposed to anything to make a difference and save human lives."
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