Updated: 03/22/2013 6:17 AM KSTP.com By: Scott Theisen
A Minnesota House panel on Thursday approved background checks for firearm sales at gun shows, but the measure may not have enough to support at the Capitol to become law.
One rural Democrat joined every Republican on the House Public Safety Committee in voting against a watered-down bill that would close the so-called "gun show loophole" but not require background checks in other private gun sales. The House Democrat leading the push to tighten Minnesota's gun laws ditched his effort to impose universal background checks earlier this week.
The bill passed on a 10-8 vote and now heads to the House floor, where it will sit for weeks as lawmakers wrangle support and shift their focus to the state's budget.
Rep. John Ward's "no" vote illustrates the political difficulty of adding broader restrictions to Minnesota's gun laws. Ward, DFL-Baxter, and several other rural Democrats - a crucial bloc for making any changes - told The Associated Press they won't support even the watered-down measure. That makes it likely that any bill will be trimmed further before becoming Minnesota law, perhaps pulling out any background check expansion altogether.
Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said he's confident that opponents have more than enough votes on the House floor to stop the bill passed Thursday night. House Republicans have stood firm against expanding background checks.
"Anything that has an expansion of background checks is problematic for me," Ward said.
Gun laws are under scrutiny in Congress and statehouses across the country in the wake of the December school shooting in Connecticut. Colorado's Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed bills Wednesday requiring universal background checks for gun purchases and banning high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Those measures have been a hard sell at the Minnesota Capitol. Lawmakers quickly abandoned efforts to ban assault weapons and larger magazines.
Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, said he scrapped his bill to require background checks for all gun sales in the state in order to pass something out of the House Public Safety Committee, which he chairs. He said the trimmed-down bill, addressing only sales at gun shows, was "a huge piece of the puzzle" in addressing gun violence in Minnesota. It requires anyone buying a pistol or assault weapon at a gun show to present a permit-to-carry or permit-to-purchase.
The bill also includes provisions to improve the information the state sends to a national background check database and helps county attorneys crack down on illegal gun owners.
The measure is a compromise between Paymar and Rep. Debra Hilstrom, a fellow Democrat from Brooklyn Center who introduced a bill in early March that would improve - but not expand - the state's current system.
The National Rifle Association built up support for that alternate bill, which would require the state to send mental health commitment information to the national database of people who can't legally own a gun and 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.
Some rural Democrats, including Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said they'd rather go ahead with the NRA-backed bill. Poppe and 16 other Democrats, including Ward, are co-authors of that legislation.
"That's the bill that has the votes to pass," Poppe said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill with universal background checks last week on a party-line vote, with all Republicans opposed. The future of that legislation is hazy, too.
Majority Leader Tom Bakk said Wednesday that he is waiting to see what shape gun legislation takes in the House before moving forward in the Senate. Bakk said the bill calling for comprehensive background checks would "certainly" have trouble on the Senate floor.
NRA lobbyist Chris Rager said a House member will move to swap in Hilstrom's original bill when the gun debate eventually hits the House floor. He and Republicans have said that expanding background checks to gun show sales would ultimately do little to reduce gun crime.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said Wednesday that the watered-down bill would be a smaller step forward than what he would like to sign into law.
"Something is always better than nothing," he said.
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