The issue of gun rights has blazed a path onto the policy agenda at the state Capitol. The subject invariably puts legislators at odds with either law enforcement or the National Rifle Association, depending on their vote.
Based on the large number of co-authors who have signed onto gun rights legislation and votes taken last week, it appears that Republicans, and a handful of DFLers from rural districts, are bucking the vanguard of state law enforcement associations by supporting a bill that gives expanded liberties to citizens who feel compelled to use lethal force for self-protection.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, who is a former conservation warden in northern Minnesota and is currently the police chief in Lake Crystal, thinks his brethren in law enforcement are wrong to oppose his legislation. Cornish noted that the permit-to-carry legislation that passed in 2003 over opposition from law enforcement has not resulted in a spike in shootouts, as was feared.
“It’s amazing that people in these advocacy groups haven’t learned that if responsibility is given to the people, they aren’t going to abuse it,” Cornish said.
Cornish has introduced what amounts to an omnibus gun bill. His legislation, HF 1467, features 34 co-authors, including five DFLers from greater Minnesota. On Thursday the bill passed the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, of which he is chairman, on a 10-7 party-line vote. The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee, where it was awaiting a hearing at press time. Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound, who is Judiciary chairman, said he expects the bill to pass again along party lines.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said legislation was being prepared in the Senate. It would have to pass out of policy committee there by Friday, May 6.
A fiscal note has been requested but not completed.
Among the controversial provisions in Cornish’s bill is the so-called “stand your ground” law, which detractors refer to as the “shoot first” proposal. The proposal would remove the requirement that crime victims show that they made an attempt to retreat before they shot.
One testifier who spoke in opposition, Heather Martens of Protect Minnesota, told the House committee the story of a girl in Ohio who was shot while trespassing. She said the homeowner complained about being prosecuted for the incident.
“People who say these things want to point their guns out of their window in the darkness and fire, and they don’t want to be held responsible for who they hit,” Martens said.
Cornish, however, said the bill lists specific circumstances in which the use of deadly force is authorized.
“To say that somebody can carte blanche take somebody’s life and use this [legal provision] as protection is inaccurate,” Cornish said.
Other features of the Cornish bill:
Law enforcement and gun control advocates face an especially formidable challenge this year. Besides the long pent-up demand from gun rights advocates in the state, the push also draws energy from the popular movement that has coalesced around demands for freedom from government regulations. Cornish tried to pass gun rights legislation when DFLers controlled the Legislature. In 2008 a Cornish gun bill died on an 8-8 vote in the Civil Justice Committee, then led by Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis.
With a new Republican majority, Cornish said his bill has a much better chance this session.
“I think that conservatives have watched our freedoms flee over the last number of years,” Cornish said. “The biggest betrayal of my constituency I could make is that when we finally get a majority of conservatives in the Senate and the House, we forget we’re conservatives and try to be safe with things that will get us elected. We’ve got to have people who remember they’re here because they’re conservative Republicans.”
Even though DFLers assailed the Cornish bill as a distraction from the ongoing budget process, the issue cuts across party lines. Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, supported the conceal-carry legislation in 2003 and is a co-author of Cornish’s bill. He has said his stance on guns fits his western Minnesota district.
“I’m with the majority of my constituents, absolutely,” Marquart said.
Cornish said he started receiving a large amount of email from opponents of the bill recently. That was countered by a similarly vigorous campaign from the NRA and other groups last week.
Advocates on both sides of the issue packed the State Office Hearing Room on Tuesday. Dennis Flaherty, the executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA), said the bill could endanger officers. “For us,” he said, “it’s an officer safety issue, and we’re very frightened by it.”
As the bill advances, Cornish is laboring to make a case that law enforcement groups don’t represent a unified opinion among the chiefs of police and rank-and-file peace officers in the state. On hand to testify for Cornish’s bill was Mankato Director of Public Safety Todd Miller. He said he isn’t concerned about law-abiding people who keep guns for self-protection. He also said law enforcement can’t always respond quickly enough in emergencies.
“There are many areas where we’re being cut back,” Miller said, “and I cannot promise to the citizens that we can be there every time for them to protect them.”
The votes taken on the bill will become important fodder for the 2012 campaign. For legislators on both sides of the aisle, the NRA was a coveted endorsement in last year’s campaign. Candidates from both parties featured their NRA endorsements on campaign literature and websites. But the NRA Political Victory Fund contributed barely any money to Minnesota legislative candidates. The PAC spent only $500 on former Rep. Dave Olin, DFL-Thief River Falls. Olin was defeated by Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, who is a co-author of Cornish’s bill.
By contrast, the MPPOA Legislative Fund spent $16,000 last year. More importantly, the MPPOA endorsed Mark Dayton before his victory over DFL primary opponent Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and contributed $2,000 to his campaign. Dayton’s strong ties to law enforcement groups could holster Cornish’s gun rights bill.
A spokeswoman for Dayton on Thursday said the governor hasn’t commented publicly on the bill yet.