As Gun Measures Stall, Rural Dems Hold Key

Updated: 04/30/2013 6:36 PM KSTP.com By: Scott Theisen

Rural Democrats' opposition to changing Minnesota's gun laws casts doubt on what legislation, if any, will pass this year to tackle gun violence.
    
A group of at least eight Democrats from outstate Minnesota are standing firm against virtually any expansion of the state's background check system. Together with Republicans - who need just six votes from across the aisle to block a bill - those Democrats hold the keys to shape, or sink, any gun legislation.
    
Bills to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines in Minnesota were quickly dropped, and an effort to impose universal background checks for gun sales was whittled down in the House to a bill that would close the so-called gun show loophole.
    
Advocates and lawmakers backing gun control measures acknowledge the possibility that even that bill won't pass. Senate legislation for universal background checks is in limbo as top Democrats there wait to see what happens in the House.
    
The St. Paul Democrat who led an unsuccessful push to impose universal background checks on gun sales hopes a bill will hit the House floor for debate in the next two weeks. House Speaker Paul Thissen wouldn't guarantee they'll take up a gun bill this session, but said he wants to have the debate.
    
But the coalition of rural Democrats and Republicans say they are ready to stop any measures that would burden law-abiding gun owners. That includes a watered-down bill that would require background checks for sales at gun shows.
    
If necessary, one Democrat said, they'll join Republicans in voting to pull the bill off the House floor.
    
"This is one thing we don't want to see and we'd rather not even have to take a vote on," said Rep. Jason Metsa, a freshman from Virginia. "Why even make it an issue for the caucus right now?"
    
Just a handful of states have passed new gun laws in the wake of the December school shooting in Connecticut. Federal legislation faltered in Congress earlier this month.
    
In Minnesota, the issue has split the Democratic majority at the Capitol along geographic lines, making tougher restrictions on guns a tough sell for rural members. Metro area Democrats and gun control advocates came in set on tightening the state's gun laws, but those high hopes have been dampened by the political realities at the Capitol.
    
Another rural member prepared to vote down any expansion of background checks, Rep. Joe Radinovich of Crosby, said input from his district "has run hundreds-to-one in opposition to nearly every gun control proposal that's been put forth."
    
Radinovich said he and others would rather not see a bill put on the House floor in the first place.
    
"I don't think we should be working out our differences on the House floor. I can't see that ending well," he said.
    
Rep. Michael Paymar, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, said dropping universal background checks was necessary to keep a bill to tighten the state's gun laws alive. He said he plans to work with rural members of his caucus again to find another compromise.
    
"I would hope that the Legislature would allow us to have the debate and take an up or down vote, not use a procedural motion to kill a bill," Paymar said. "It would be a shame if we didn't do something proactive this legislative session to combat gun violence."
    
In the Senate, little has happened on the guns front since mid-March, when a Senate panel passed a bill with universal background checks. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said he's waiting on the House to move on a handful of issues: guns, gay marriage, childcare unionization and more.
    
"I'm not too interested in taking votes on controversial things that aren't going to become law and just sending them over to the House only to have them maybe fail," Bakk has said.
    
The gun bill in the Senate also includes several provisions from an alternate plan that would improve - but not expand - the state's existing background check system. That bill is backed by the National Rifle Association and many members from both parties, including several members of the group of rural Democrats.
    
Metsa said he may be open to approving measures from the alternate plan. Rep. Tony Cornish, the Good Thunder Republican who has led his caucus on gun issues, said he'd rather vote any gun bill straight down.
    
If bills in both chambers eventually move forward and pass, members from each body will hash out the differences in a conference committee. Cornish said he fears the finished product may contain provisions he and other Republicans can't stomach.
    
"There's an advantage to just letting it die," he said.
    
Thissen said he remains confident the House and Senate can pass some legislation to tackle gun violence before session wraps up, scheduled for late May. It's just a matter of figuring out what can pass, he said.
    
"I don't think anybody who looks at what happened in Newtown ... can step away and say there's no action that we should take to make sure that we try to reduce gun violence," Thissen said.
   
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)