It sounds less like a change of heart than a change of atmosphere that led Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, to green-light two pieces of DFL gun legislation.
Gazelka told the Star Tribune Tuesday — and the rest of the Capitol press corps Wednesday — that the Senate will hold committee hearings this year on two gun bills from Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park.
Up to now there has not been much movement on that legislation in the GOP-controlled Senate. Gazelka said in January that his Judiciary Committee chair, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, was contemplating a “comprehensive overview of guns,” but nothing like that has happened.
Still, on Jan. 31, Gazelka told Minnesota Lawyer that he saw a Senate debate on guns as inevitable sometime during the current cycle — which could mean either this year or next.
Now we know that discussion will take place in the Senate Judiciary committee sometime this year and that the two bills — one for universal background checks, the other for red-flag restraining orders — will get a committee vote.
So what’s changed? “Maybe it’s a growing conversation in our caucus that it’s OK if we do it earlier than later,” Gazelka said in an interview. “There’s more of an openness to doing it this year.”
There is one catch: The House bills first would have to pass individually off the House floor to put their level of bipartisan support on display, the majority leader said. Only then can those bills’ Senate companions be heard in the Senate.
Gazelka cautioned DFLers not to bury bills in a budget omnibus and present them in conference committee. Such a move could threaten that bill and the government financing it contains, he said.
Up to now, Gazelka said, most Senate Republicans thought a vote on gun legislation could wait until 2020. But the mood among his members has changed, Gazelka said, and so has the situation.
The first committee deadlines are past and the governor, House and Senate have all set their budget targets. With that heavy lifting out of the way, Gazelka said, the decks are a little clearer to take on the controversial — and potentially time-consuming — gun debate.
There isn’t much chance the Latz bills will clear Senate Judiciary where the GOP has a solid 6-3 Republican majority. “I don’t think it’s going to pass on our side,” Gazelka said. “But I think an open hearing on it is worthwhile.” Even so, it is possible they could get argued later by the full Senate, possibly through floor amendments.
Reached Wednesday, Latz said he was glad Gazelka decided to hear his bills. “We know that the public, from polling data, is strongly in support of both of these bills and I’m happy to have the conversation,” Latz said.
He worries, however, that the hearing could simply set the bills up to fail. Something like that happened on March 11, when Senate Judiciary heard a marijuana legalization bill only to have it defeated in a straight party-line vote and halting its progress.
“Sure, I’m concerned about that,” Latz said. “But we’ll make our case and I guess we’ll see where the votes are. If they kill it, they will be responsible to the vast majority of gun owners in Minnesota who support these bills.”