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Two gun-safety bills advance in Minnesota House

Kevin Featherly//February 28, 2019

Two gun-safety bills advance in Minnesota House

Kevin Featherly//February 28, 2019

Speaking against gun legislation on Feb. 27 were Bryan Strawser, left, chair of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, and Daniel Ward, membership director of the Twin Cities African-American Heritage Gun Club. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)
Speaking against gun legislation on Feb. 27 were Bryan Strawser, left, chair of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, and Daniel Ward, membership director of the Twin Cities African-American Heritage Gun Club. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

It took a House committee two days and nearly six hours to pass both its marquee gun-safety bills. But by mid-afternoon Thursday, the job was done.

Working before well-behaved crowds of advocates on both sides of the gun debate, the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform committee passed House File 8 late Wednesday and House File 9 the next afternoon.

HF 8 is a firearm background check bill authored by Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul. It passed along party lines, 9-7, with one member missing.

HF 9, authored by freshman Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, passed on a 10-7 vote. In both cases Republicans supplied all the no votes.

HF 8 requires that private firearms transfers—with some exceptions, including for immediate family—must be preceded by background checks. In effect, the bill requires the gun’s current owner to verify its intended recipient is qualified to possess the weapon.

The sands ran out on House File 9 on Wednesday, delaying a vote until Thursday afternoon. House File 9 would create emergency protection orders that would allow authorities to temporarily remove guns if a person is at immediate risk of suicide or violence toward others.

Proponents see the bills as chipping away at an epidemic of American gun violence. Opponents see them as an initial step onto a slippery slope of eroded constitutional freedoms. Detractors also say both bills would punish law-abiding gun owners while doing little to resolve gun violence.

Background checks

Pinto testified Wednesday that 30,000 Americans a year are killed by guns—more than 1,200 of whom are children. While hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans use firearms responsibly, he said, gun violence is a widespread problem—one that is much bigger than the mass shootings that receive vast media attention.

“It’s a daily drumbeat of death and injury to such an extent that we don’t even notice it unless it involves our child, our parent, our family member or our friends,” Pinto said. “We can do more to keep guns out of the hands of people who have proven to be dangerous.”

His bill, HF 8, extends to private transactions the background checks already required of licensed dealers.

It requires sellers to get a transferee permit and purchasers to get a buyer’s permit.

It then requires both parties to retain forms recording the transfer and make them available on demand to law enforcement, if the weapon becomes part of a future criminal investigation.

Failure to produce that record could result in gross misdemeanor charges. The bill also makes it a felony to knowingly provide false information while obtaining a permit.

Pinto called private-party background checks “a proven policy” that is used in more than 20 states. “And those states have lower rates of gun death from a variety of causes,” he asserted. Opponents denied that claim, and many others.

The bill has solid support from the law enforcement, prosecutor and corrections communities. Representatives of all those groups testified for the bill.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman spoke for the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. “We need to do everything we can as lawmakers, police officers and prosecutors to stop the violence,” Freeman said. “This bill will do that. Therefore, in my mind, we are obligated to pass it.”

Sa’Lesha Beeks also spoke. Her mother, Birdell Beeks, was killed by an underage gang member’s stray bullet in 2016. In tearful testimony, she said the Pinto bill might have save her mother’s life and spared her own daughter from witnessing the death. “Birdell Beeks’ life mattered,” she said.

“If you do not pass this bill, you have failed Minnesotans—including yourselves, your loved ones and the Minnesotans who voted for you,” she said.

Opponents disagreed with such contentions, saying the bill would succeed only in curbing peaceful citizens’ rights while putting them at risk of conviction, simply for mislaying old paperwork. Yet it would do little to prevent criminals from acquiring weapons because most buy them illegally or simply steal them, they said.

On that point, Freeman met opponents halfway. “It is true that there will continue to be illegal sales, particularly by criminals on the street,” he said. But the bill would nevertheless help, he said. “There is no question that it will limit the number [of deaths],” he said. “And in my view, that’s enough.”

Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, argued that proponents’ logic, followed to its extreme, would mean criminal background checks should be conducted on computer purchases—because buyers might one day use them to obtain child pornography.

Daniel Ward, membership director for the Twin Cities’ African-American Heritage Gun Club, called the imposition of background checks a form of harassment on legal private gun owners. “It attacks us in many ways,” Ward said. “Criminals do not obey the law. They just don’t.”

Protective orders

Richardson’s bill establishes “extreme risk protection orders,” whereby a judge could remove a person’s firearms if he or she is in immediate danger of committing suicide or violence to others.

Richardson said her bill allows families—often the first to see “red-flag” warning signs—to work with law enforcement for temporary removal. She said her bill is modeled after existing domestic violence protection orders.

It creates two kinds of restraining orders. The default version allows law enforcement or prosecutors to petition for a gun-removal order, based on evidence presented in civil court. The respondent could also present evidence at that hearing.

The other would be an ex parte proceeding. In that case, weapons could be removed at a civil court hearing in the respondent’s absence. But the court would be required to hold a separate hearing within 14 days, where the respondent could challenge the order.

Richardson late Wednesday passed an amendment to the bill. In her original version, concerned family members could have petitioned the courts. As now written, they must ask law enforcement to file for a petition.

In a press conference earlier Wednesday, Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, said she finds the bill confusing. It infringes on the Second, Fourth and Fifth Amendments, she said, yet contains language that doesn’t square with existing statute. She said she is particularly distressed by the ex parte hearing component.

“This bill infringes on civil rights and if we are going to do that we need to do it correctly,” she said. “This bill frankly does not.”

O’Neill said the existing system, which allows people at risk of suicide or violence to be placed on 72-hour mental health holds, is preferable.

However, at a separate DFL press conference Wednesday afternoon, Richardson said 72-hour holds can be difficult to obtain. Frequently people are sent home after several hours in an emergency room, because psychiatric hospital beds are unavailable.

O’Neill made similar arguments during Wednesday night’s hearing.

She said the bill’s most egregious section allows judges to factor previous arrests for felony, violent gross misdemeanor or stalking charges into their restraining order determinations—even without a prior conviction. They also could factor in past evidence of alcohol or substance abuse, she said.

O’Neill said those provisions stigmatize people who, in some of its other efforts, the Legislature is trying to de-stigmatize. But Freeman countered that all parts of the bill O’Neill found objectionable can be found elsewhere in Minnesota statutes. He praised Richardson’s bill as “thoughtful.”

“Anybody probably in this room could fall into these categories,” replied an unconvinced O’Neill. “I’m not even sure.”

Bryan Strawser, chair of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, agreed with O’Neill that the bill’s ex parte provisions are especially problematic.

“This lack of an adversarial process, this lack of an ability to defend oneself, is not what our criminal justice system is all about,” he said.

Strawser also argued the bill carries two burdens of proof. Those wanting an emergency restraining order need only show a preponderance of the evidence supports their case, he said. But the respondent must show clear and convincing evidence that weapons should be returned.

Pinto, who carried the background check bill last year, denied that. He said the same burden of proof applies in both instances.

As the clock struck midnight Wednesday, the first hearing was shut down. It took 45 minutes on Thursday to finally get the Richardson bill passed.

As they had done with HF 8 a day earlier, Republicans offered a series of unsuccessful amendments to her bill. One would have required police to seize not only guns under an emergency order, but also ropes, knives, axes, baseball bats, antifreeze and almost anything else that might do harm to another person.

Near the close of the second hearing Thursday, House Judiciary chairman John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, said he shares opponents’ concerns that HF 9 could curtail due process rights—but he said the same can be said for domestic violence restraining orders, which met little resistance when adopted.

He was less conciliatory toward opponents who argue that HF 8 should be voted down because criminals wouldn’t obey it. He called that a “dumb argument.”

“That’s an argument against having any criminal laws whatsoever,” he said. “I mean, seriously? Who came up with that?”

Having passed, both bills move next to House Ways and Means.

The Democrats’ victory may be short-lived; both bills seem doomed in the Senate. There Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has stated several times that his GOP majority has little appetite for passing them.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Richardson said shortly after Thursday’s vote.

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