Paul Marquart knows that when it comes to the gun debate at the Capitol, most of it boils down to matters of region and culture.
The Dilworth Democratic House member — who boasts the endorsement of the National Rifle Association (NRA) — has only had positive experiences with firearms throughout his life in rural Minnesota, where he and many of his constituents own guns for hunting and recreation. His colleagues in the metro area mostly associate guns with mayhem. In September of last year, six employees in Minneapolis-based business Accent Signage lost their lives to a lone shooter, and attention has turned to the gun debate nationally after 20 schoolchildren and six adults lost their lives to a gunman in Newtown, Conn.
President Barack Obama came to Minneapolis on Monday to lead a roundtable with local law enforcement officials about gun control, but a more raucous spectacle took place in St. Paul on Tuesday, when mostly pro-gun-rights advocates filled the halls of the State Office Building to testify or simply sit inside a committee room where nearly a dozen bills to limit gun violence are to be heard over a three-day period this week. Senate Public Safety Chairman Ron Latz is prepping for a similar slew of hearings later in the month.
Nearly all of the bills were authored by metro-area lawmakers. St. Paul DFL Rep. Alice Hausman wants to outlaw so-called assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. Latz, a Democrat from St. Louis Park, and St. Paul DFL Rep. John Lesch have introduced bills to keep guns away from domestic violence felons and increase the penalty for illegally possessing a firearm. House Public Safety Committee Chairman Michael Paymar of St. Paul has revived a “universal background check” bill. No votes were to be taken on the bills this week, but any of them could potentially be included in an omnibus public safety bill later this year.
“We will have to see when we craft the bill and put it together whether we have the votes or not,” Paymar said after the Tuesday hearing. “Rural members in my caucus have said they support elements of what we are trying to construct here. Will everything get in the bill? I doubt it.”
Marquart says he understands why the discussion is happening now, but that doesn’t quell the concerns that he and a handful of his rural Democratic colleagues, all of whom serve in gun-supporting districts, harbor as metro Democrats barrel ahead on the issue.
“My big concern is we don’t jump to conclusions and look to do things that may not get us where we want to go,” said Marquart, adding that he thinks that gun violence should be dealt with on a federal level. I’ve seen no evidence or data that says legislation like some we are seeing will stop something like what happened in Connecticut. It’s really about mental health. To me, a normal person doesn’t go into a school and shoot school children. Us rural lawmakers are really looking at this and saying, ‘Are we really improving things this way?’ ”
The NRA in rural Minnesota
Rep. Tom Anzelc, a Democrat from Balsam Township with an “A” rating from the NRA, put it more bluntly this week: “I’m having a certain amount of heartburn over the whole issue.”
In an all DFL-controlled state government, metro area Democrats will have to forge alliances with rural Democrats to get any kind of omnibus gun legislation passed this session. It’s a simple issue of math: Republican votes plus all rural Democratic votes could quash an omnibus gun bill in either chamber this session. Earning those rural DFL votes could prove tricky when it comes to courting the likes of Anzelc and Rep. David Dill in the House, or Sens. Tom Saxhaug and David Tomassoni in the upper chamber. All of those legislators carry “A” ratings and endorsements from the NRA.
Many DFLers have depended on gun and hunting endorsements to win elections against Republicans in their rural districts. Anzelc survived a competitive incumbent-on-incumbent match up last fall against Republican Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick, who carried an “A minus” rating from the NRA.
The number of pro-gun advocates that has turned out in St. Paul for the hearings is an indicator of the NRA’s power in Minnesota. Pro-gun group organizers encouraged the crowd waiting in the hallway, many of whom sported yellow pins reading “Self defense is a human right,” to contact their local legislators directly if they didn’t get into the committee hearings this week. Wells freshman Democratic Rep. Shannon Savick’s phone was flooded with calls on Tuesday, while other gun supporters are filling out form letters and sending them to their representatives. DFL Sen. Tom Saxhaug, who represents a district that includes Grand Rapids and Bemidji, has already had those letters start flowing into his inbox.
“The NRA is always calling me,” Saxhaug said, noting that he carried the group’s conceal-and-carry bill in 2003. “It’s something that I haven’t been sorry about, but anytime you get into the constitution and second amendment rights, you’re going to get a certain reaction.”
Mental health measures, background checks
Saxhaug doesn’t support a ban on assault weapons, but says he and other rural members could come to an agreement on bills that fix issues with background checks and those that deal with mentally ill individuals possessing firearms. Paymar has said he’s heard from rural Democrats that they could come to an agreement on his bill, which would expand state background checks that now apply to sales of assault weapons and pistols by licensed gun dealers to also apply to gun shows, internet sales and private sales (excluding family).
Bemidji DFL Rep. John Persell, who has also been endorsed by the NRA, has put his name on DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler’s bill to require the state to create and maintain a list of those who voluntarily wish to be ineligible to purchase firearms for a self-determined period of time.
“I’m going to be very supportive of legislation that brings mental health issues in and some funding to assist us in making sure that we are aggressive in that part of this equation,” he said. He’s also supportive of changes to the way background checks are conducted in the state. “Those two have a good shot, no pun intended,” he said.
But Persell adds that any ban on assault weapons would have to be drafted “very carefully.”
“We need to avoid anybody not being able to keep their weapons like I have,” he said. “I have my hunting weapons and my pistol, and I have a ten round clip. We have to be real careful about how we are doing that.”
Gov. Mark Dayton’s office is also paying attention to divisions between rural and metro legislators. While Dayton has said he believes gun issues should be dealt with at the federal level, spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci says he’s is interested in “real reforms that would help stop gun violence, meaning keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have guns,” she said. “What that looks like, we aren’t sure yet.”
Dayton “specifically brought up the rural versus metro issue” in his talk with President Obama, Tinucci said, “so it’s certainly something the governor is aware of, and if there is some consensus there, that will be important to the governor.”