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Background checks key in Minnesota gun debate

ST. PAUL -- Universal background checks for gun buyers remain a major focus of debate as Minnesota lawmakers moved forward Thursday with a gun control plan.

Debate goes on
Minnesota Sen. Ron Latz of St. Louis Park listens during a Thursday, March 14, 2013, Senate Judiciary Committee meeting. (Forum News Service photo by Danielle Killey)

ST. PAUL -- Universal background checks for gun buyers remain a major focus of debate as Minnesota lawmakers moved forward Thursday with a gun control plan.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved 5-3 a proposal that includes checks for all firearms purchases.

Background checks on gun purchasers are not required for private sales, which some say is a dangerous loophole.

"If we really are serious about reducing gun violence in our state, this is the course," said Dennis Flaherty, Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association director.

Bill author Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said expanding background checks is widely supported throughout Minnesota.


"It would be, at most, a minor inconvenience," he told the committee.

National Rifle Association spokesman Chris Rager said the expanded checks would essentially ban private sales and trades and would not have prevented any of the tragedies he said spurred the legislation.

"Criminals aren't going to all of a sudden submit themselves to background checks," he said.

The provision is among the more controversial ones remaining before lawmakers this year in an effort to curb gun violence in Minnesota. A number of proposals have been raised this session, but final bills have been whittled down.

Sami Rahamim, whose father owned Minneapolis' Accent Signage and was killed in a shooting there last year, said lawmakers need to try to stop the violence.

"Too many Minnesotans have and will be robbed of their family members," he said when urging lawmakers to approve Latz's bill.

Latz's gun control plan gives law enforcement officials more discretion to reject gun permits for those considered dangerous and strengthens penalties for straw purchases, in which people buy guns for those who are not allowed to have one, and for illegally possessing firearms. The bill mainly applies to pistols and semi-automatic assault weapons.

He said his plan incorporated earlier proposals and comments from the public and others during testimony at the Capitol.


Some lawmakers have proposed bills without added background checks that they say are a compromise and would close gaps in existing law.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, and Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, released similar bills that include stronger straw purchase and illegal possession penalties and make improvements to the existing state and federal background check system.

"We should be targeting gun crime and not law-abiding citizens," Ortman said.

Both bills are backed by the NRA. Ortman's bill was to be discussed Thursday evening, but a vote was not planned. She said she thought it could have passed the committee and Senate and did not support Latz's bill.

"I believe this effort is hostile to law-abiding gun owners in the state of Minnesota," Ortman said of Latz's bill. "It's hostile to the principles of the Second Amendment, which creates a right of gun ownership, not a privilege."

Latz argued that no rights are violated.

"There is no Second Amendment issue here," he said. "The Second Amendment does not guarantee absolutely everyone to have unfettered access to firearms."

None of the proposals includes banning high-capacity magazines and assault rifles. Those were the most contentious gun control provisions initially discussed.


The future of gun control proposals still remains hazy for this year. Many rural Democrats have sided with Republicans against major changes to gun laws.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said Latz's plan is too expansive to be approved.

"I think you've created too heavy of a bill," he said Thursday.

The bulk of Latz's plan will go to the full Senate, while some pieces that have financial impacts on the state first will go to the Senate's Finance Committee.

The House plans to discuss an overall gun control proposal next week.

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