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House Public Safety Chair Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul (center), listens to testimony during a Feb. 21 hearing. Earlier in the hearing, Mariani surprised members by announcing he would hold a meeting at an Edina middle school. That was later slated for Hopkins High School, then moved again back to the Capitol. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Twice rescheduled gun bills’ hearing moved to Capitol

Bryan Strawser, chairman off the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, speaks at a Jan. 24 Capitol Press conference. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Bryan Strawser, chairman of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, speaks at a Jan. 24 Capitol press conference. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

The hearing on two House gun-safety bills isn’t even scheduled until Feb. 27. Yet both sides’ rhetorical barrels were red hot over the bills going into this week at the Capitol.

House File 8 and House File 9 would establish universal gun-purchase background checks and new emergency restraining orders, which could result in the temporary removal of guns from people deemed imminently dangerous. Both bills are scheduled to be heard at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Room 120 of the Capitol.

That’s the meeting’s third scheduled location and second scheduled time since it was first announced on Feb. 21.

It initially was slated for 5 p.m. Wednesday at Valley View Middle School in Edina. But at 1 p.m., Saturday, notice went out that the venue was changed—it would now be scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, this time in the Hopkins High School’s Little Theater.

Six hours later, another change: The hearing would be held at the Capitol. House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler put out an explanatory statement via email.

“We wanted to hold a committee hearing on gun violence prevention in a school to offer students and parents an easier opportunity to offer their thoughts on an issue that has caused so much fear and stress for families,” Winkler said in an email distributed to reporters.

“Instead of welcoming that discussion, the gun lobby directed their activists to badger local school district officials, including asking for gun carry requests because schools are gun-free zones,” he wrote. “The gun lobby knows that the public isn’t on their side, so they have to resort to these tactics.”

That brought a sharp retort from Bryan Strawser, chair of the gun-rights group, the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus.

“Rather than taking the opportunity to listen and learn about objections to their anti-gun agenda and legislation from law-abiding gun owners,” Strawser said in a press release, “the House DFL Caucus chose to ridicule their very participation in the democratic process.”

Added Strawser, “This entire situation related to next week’s hearing has been manufactured by House DFL Leadership. Had they chosen not to use students and schools as a prop for their anti-gun agenda, this entire issue could have been avoided.”

That might have been the end of it—at least until the hearing commenced. But it wasn’t.

On Sunday, the Gun Owners Caucus held a gun rights rally at the Capitol. There, Rep. Cal Bahr, R-East Bethel, made some controversial comments that he later said were misunderstood by some lawmakers and the media. He told the crowd it was time to “start riding herd” on gun-control proponents.

“They will not go quietly into the good night,” Bahr said of gun-legislation backers. “They need to be kicked to the curb and stomped on and run over a few times.”

Gov. Tim Walz quickly condemned those comments. “Encouraging violence endangers our communities and undermines our democracy, particularly when the statement is made by an elected official,” he wrote. “I urge the Legislature to foster a productive conversation where everyone feels safe to make their voice heard.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman echoed Walz’s sentiments, calling Bahr’s comments “reprehensible,” “irresponsible” and “dangerous.”

“Minnesotans have been loud and clear that they want us to address the epidemic of gun violence in our communities,” she said in a press release. “We will not be deterred by threatening comments intended to intimidate legislators and supporters of gun violence prevention legislation.”

In a news release Monday, Bahr denied condoning violence and said lawmakers and the media had misconstrued what he said.

“My statement was not in any way directed towards people,” the statement said. “Instead, my comments were focused on the legislation that would restrict the rights of Minnesotans.

“I am sorry for the confusion that has taken place, and I regret not being clear in my comments. I do not condone violence. There was no intention of violence in my statement.”

Controversial from the start

Even before Sunday’s rally, there was controversy about where this week’s legislative hearing would be held and why. But before Sunday, the dispute was far calmer.

On Thursday, the House Public Safety committee chair Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said he wanted the hearing held in a school setting because schools arguably have been most directly impacted by gun violence.

“Obviously, they’re in other settings, too,” he said. “But I think [what has] particularly captured the hearts and minds and anxiety of the public has been the terrible outcomes with little children and high schoolers.” That made a school hearing “absolutely appropriate,” he said.

Public Safety committee members were taken by surprise when Mariani said last week they would be expected to attend two evening hearings, including the “field hearing” then scheduled in Edina. The other nighttime hearing, at the Capitol on Tuesday, will deal with the Corrections Department budget.

“I’m disappointed that we’re going down to Edina,” said Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, the committee’s former chair. “Some of our members drive home every day. For me, that’s another half-hour drive to get home.”

He asked Mariani to reconsider. “This is where we do our legislation,” Johnson said. “The Capitol is where we should be talking about this.”

Mariani said Johnson’s point was fair, but noted that lawmakers occasionally do hold hearings off campus—most recently on Feb. 6 at Stillwater state prison. Mariani called field sessions “an enriching idea, an empowering idea” both for the public and lawmakers.

“This particular community has opened itself up for that,” Mariani told committee members. “And there is a strong interest given, quite frankly, the tragic events of the last year or two.”

Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, also objected citing security. “The security of this building is known and our sergeants [at arms] do a very good job of controlling this building and all that come in and out,” he said. “I would urge you to reconsider and have the hearings here.”

Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, found Nash’s observation grimly amusing. “I get lost in the irony that your concern is about security,” he said, “… when we’re going to be bringing up issues around gun safety.”

Mariani later told reporters he expected the House Sergeant at Arms Office and local law enforcement would supply security at the Edina school hearing. In an interview, Johnson added that State Troopers also would have to be in the mix.

Johnson said he was not concerned a school hearing would get out of hand. “But I am worried about transparency,” he said. “Are you going to be able to tell the rest of the public through notice?”

Still, there were hints that the high school session could have become chaotic.

At 5 p.m. on Thursday, Benjamin Dorr, executive director of the group Minnesota Gun Rights, messaged followers in an email titled “Stand and fight!” It said that the school hearing would address “Michael Bloomberg’s universal gun registration and red flag gun seizure bills.”

“If there was ever a time to attend an event and make your voice thunder in defense of your Second Amendment freedoms and our Minnesota way of life, this is that time,” the e-mail says.

It was not immediately known whether that message was among those that prompted Winkler’s concerns about the potential badgering of testifiers. When asked Monday morning what sparked Winkler’s concerns, the DFL House press office sent a link to a selfie Facebook video featuring Rob Doar, the Minnesota Gun Caucus’ political director. It was posted online after Sunday’s Capitol rally.

“You guys definitely made the city of Edina squirm by demanding that we not have the gun control hearings there,” Doar told followers on the video. That comment, near the beginning of the three-minute video, was called out by the press office in response to Minnesota Lawyer’s query.

Doar’s group later on Sunday updated its followers on the most recent venue change, this time to the Capitol. “We need law-abiding gun owners from all over the state to show up and be heard,” the page says.

Wednesday night’s legislative hearing at the Capitol will be a ticketed event, a suggestion that the House Sergeant at Arms office expects a big and potentially raucous turnout for the gun bills’ hearing.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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