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Minnesota Dems offer modest gun control agenda, fearing election backlash


Minnesota Dems offer modest gun control agenda, fearing election backlash

Feb 21, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Michelle Griffith
Minnesota Dems offer modest gun control agenda, fearing election backlash
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Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers are considering a slew of new gun restrictions this session, many with the goal of reducing the number of semi-automatic rifles in Minnesota.

Democrats are looking to build upon the gun legislation signed into law last year, including universal background checks and an extreme risk protection order, or “red flag law,” which allows the authorities to take guns from someone deemed a threat to themselves or others. 

The push comes as Burnsville mourns the loss of two police officers and a paramedic to gunfire early Sunday. Last year, according to preliminary data, there were 59 incidents involving suspects shooting at police, up from just 10 in 2019.

Some progressive DFL lawmakers are aiming for laws restricting the sale and possession of semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15, but slim majorities in both chambers and skittish caucus moderates will make passage difficult — especially in an election year when all 134 House seats are on the ballot and the issue could create political headaches for swing-district Democrats. 

“It’s still disappointing to me how the public is ahead of the politicians on this one,” said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville. Marty, a longtime gun control advocate, said he hasn’t heard whether his assault weapon bill will even receive a hearing this session, but he’s not optimistic. Many of his Democratic colleagues, he said, are “scared.” 

“I think the DFL perspective on this is bad,” Marty said.

Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth, who has her own bill banning assault weapons, said she believes lawmakers are hesitant to touch gun bans in part because they’re afraid of the increasingly furious opposition.  

“Someone has to really devote themselves to working on this. The type of intimidation, hate mail and angry vitriol that is launched at people who really try to tackle this is intense,” McEwen said.

What’s doable

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL- Brooklyn Park, dampened expectations.

“I personally support an assault weapons ban, but my priority has been legislation that can pass the House and Senate and be signed into law by Gov. (Tim) Walz — like criminal background checks and extreme risk protection orders in the 2023 session,” Hortman said in a statement. She said she’s focused on the safe storage of guns and requiring the reporting of lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement.

Lawmakers last year considered safe storage laws, and a version of the proposal will likely emerge for consideration again this year.

Lawmakers also seem ready to proceed with a law that would revoke the state’s preemption of firearms regulations (HF3672/SF3583). Current preemption law prevents local governments from enacting their own gun laws; the bill would allow it. 

The bill author is Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, a Ramsey County prosecutor and leader on gun bills, along with House Majority Leader Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, and public safety Chair Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview. 

“We really want to be able to allow our cities to take the steps they need to keep their citizens safe and their residents safe from this epidemic of gun violence, and so it makes sense to take that away and allow cities to have some more flexibility,” Pinto said. 

If the state’s preemption law is revoked, cities could ban guns in public libraries, recreation centers or publicly owned buildings, Pinto said.

Some Dems take aim at mass shooting gun

But progressive Democrats this year are proposing more headline-grabbing gun control legislation: semi-automatic rifle bans.

Ten states have laws restricting semi-automatic rifles, which are often commercial versions of military weapons. The AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle has been used in many of the U.S.’ high-profile mass shootings.  

Marty is proposing a bill this session that would ban the possession of large-capacity magazines, semi-automatic “military-style assault weapons” and .50-caliber or larger guns. The bill (HF3628/SF3680) also includes a registration requirement for Minnesotans who already own one of these guns. 

Rep. María Pérez-Vega, DFL-St. Paul, is sponsoring the House version of the possession ban. She said she was raised by a family of veterans, who would be troubled by how easily accessible semi-automatic rifles are today.

“My father and many veterans have suffered PTSD and shared with me that they served in the military to protect, but in no way would support military weapons to be accessible to be a part of our children’s upbringing and accessible in our communities,” Pérez-Vega said in a statement.

The first-term representative said Minnesota needs to protect public safety for all its citizens.

“I acknowledge the 2nd Amendment and the right to bear arms, but that was written in another time and context,” Pérez-Vega said.

McEwen proposed her gun control bill (SF3352) at the end of last session. It would ban the sale or transfer of semi-automatic rifles and initiate a state-run buyback program.

A weapon “transfer” refers to “a sale, gift, loan, assignment, or other delivery to another.”

“I would like to see these weapons of war not available to the public for sale,” McEwen said. “What we really want to do is reduce the number of weapons that are out there.”

Rob Doar, lobbyist and senior vice president for the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, said the semi-automatic rifle bans aren’t effective in preventing gun violence. 

“The idea of a military-style weapon evokes a lot of emotion in people, but when you look at it from an empirical standpoint, the data doesn’t really justify targeting them,” Doar said. 

The RAND Corporation last year published a review of studies on the effects of state or federal assault weapons bans on mass shootings and said the results were inconclusive. A National Institute of Justice review found that handguns were used in the majority of mass shootings. But other studies have found a semi-automatic rifle ban to be effective.

The Minnesota Senate has a slim 34-33 DFL majority; swing-district senators faced pressure from interest groups and their constituents last year over their stance on the universal background checks and red flag law. 

Sens. Grant Hauschild of Hermantown, Rob Kupec of Moorhead and Judy Seeberger* of Afton last year indicated that the two bills signed last year were all they would support. 

Last week, the Reformer asked Walz during a media availability whether he supports a semi-automatic rifle ban. The governor said he would need to look at the bill language. 

“The one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty is we do not need these weapons of war in our classrooms, on our streets, in the Capitol building,” Walz said. “I’m interested to see what comes up.”

*Correction: A previous version of this story had Sen. Judy Seeberger’s first name wrong.